Garlic Growing Guide – From Planting to Harvest
Growing up in an Italian household, most cooking starts with extra virgin olive oil and garlic. Running out of either is worse than running out of wine! While most people can’t grow their own olives, you can easily grow your own garlic. Homegrown garlic (IT: aglio) is nothing like what you find in supermarkets. Firstly, the flavour is much stronger. Where you’d normally use 3-4 cloves to intensify your cooking, you can get away with 1-2 cloves of homegrown garlic. Secondly, the source is much safer. Yes, most things grown in your backyard or locally are better for you and the environment, but the vast majority of retail garlic comes from China – and I won’t ever trust that. So, having an annual supply of homegrown garlic has become a must.
Follow along with my simple and easy how-to-guide so you too can grow your own garlic.
Types of Garlic
There are two types of garlic: hardneck and softneck. The difference is in the bulb that forms underground and the stem that grows above. Softneck garlic produces a leafy stem that stays flexible with garlic cloves that cluster together under the soil. Whereas hardneck produces a central, rigid stem (similar to an onion or leek) with cloves that form a bulb around the base of the stem below ground – this is the more common variety in grocery stores. Softneck garlic is your choice if you live in a warm climate, while hardnecks are what I plant as they are better suited for cold climates.
Seed vs. Clove
When planting garlic, you can start it from either seed or clove. But there’s a big difference between what they produce and the timeframe. Planting a garlic seed will form a single clove in the first year. You then have to leave that clove in the ground for a second year to produce an entire bulb. Planting a clove is the same as leaving a clove in the ground – it will produce a full head with multiple cloves. So rather than plant a seed and wait two years for it to turn into a full head of garlic, it’s more common and effective to plant single cloves and get a full bulb in one growing season. For this reason, most “seed garlic” you purchase will actually be loose cloves for replanting.
When to Plant
Garlic is traditionally planted in the Fall. The general rule is to get it into the ground 4 to 6 weeks before the soil freezes solid and winter sets in. By that time of year – usually planting in October or November in the Northern Hemisphere – the days are short and cool, so planted garlic won’t sprout prematurely. Keeping in mind the natural seed-clove-bulb cycle explained above, hardneck garlic actually requires cold temperatures to signal that it's time to enter the second phase (year) of growth.
How to Plant
Prepare your soil for planting by mixing in fresh compost or manure. The top 6 inches of soil needs to be loose and airy for water to penetrate, so break it up with a light raking and do not compact it. Once this is done use two fingers, or the end of a rake or pole to create rows of holes 2-3 (5-7cm) inches deep spaced about 5 inches (12cm) apart.
To plant cloves, break a bulb of garlic appart if necessary. Do not peel cloves, as the papery skin helps protect it from rotting. Place a single clove in each hole with the pointed end facing upwards and cover with soil.
It is also a good idea to mulch 2-3 inches on top of the planted area with straw, mulched leaves or shredded newspaper.
Once the snow melts, days get longer and temperatures rise, your garlic will be one of the earliest signs of life in the garden. Check for shoots to break through the soil and keep the area well watered and fed with a good organic, liquid fertilizer to ensure the plants grow strong. Keep the beds free of weeds, but no other maintenance is needed.
Harvesting Garlic Scapes
After 60 days of growth (usually early to mid June) the stems of hardneck garlic form a curling shoot with a flower head at the end. This is called a scape. Once the scape has gone around in a full circle, harvest it by cutting it where it formed from the leaves of the stem. Scapes have a mild garlic flavour and can be used in cooking and mixes. But more importantly, if left on the plant, the scape will flower and form a seed pod. By removing the scape the plant’s energy is focused into forming a larger bulb below ground.
Harvesting Garlic Bulbs
Timing the harvest of garlic is the most difficult step to master because what is happening below ground is hidden. Pulling garlic too soon results in underdeveloped bulbs. Wait too long and the bulbs will start to split apart. The sign to look for is in the leaves and the stem. About 30-40 days after scapes are removed, the leaves and stem will start to brown. Once the bottom 3 or 4 lowest leaves have dried out, it’s time to consider harvesting. Remove soil from around the base of a plant to check the size of the bulb. If it looks small, you can push the soil back and leave it a little longer to form up.
When you’re finally ready to take them out, remove the soil from around the base and dig the garlic up with your hands or a garden fork. I prefer this method over pulling them, to ensure the bulb and stem stay intact. Brush off any excess soil and leave the bulbs to dry out for a few hours until the rest of the loose soil can be brushed off. Do not wash the bulbs or cut them off the stems.
Curing and Storage
Garlic must be cured to ensure it will last. To do this, lay garlic out or hang it in a sheltered location away from sun and rain. Sheds, garages, basements and porches are all good spots. After at least 2-3 weeks, the remaining leaves and entire stem should turn brown and dry out. Once it has, you can trim the roots from the end and cut the stem leaving a few inches above the bulb. Keep the garlic stored in a cool, dry and dark location to enjoy for months!
Ready to start growing your own garlic? I can help from beginning to end. It starts with the right location and soil. Let me build you a standard or custom raised bed or in-ground garden for your backyard in the Greater Toronto Area. If you prefer to be completely hands off, I can assist with garden planning and planting – shop my garden services page for more info. And as always, reach out via email, Facebook or Instagram with any questions or comments you may have.