Updated: Jun 20
Garlic originated in central Asia where it is used to flavor food and as an antioxidant with cardiovascular and cancer benefits in traditional medicine. Most of the garlic production originates from China, but it is an easy crop to grow in the home garden, especially if you have limited space.
Growing garlic is as simple as taking a clove of store bought garlic and sticking it in soil. It comes in soft neck and hard neck varieties, but the soft neck variety is the type most commonly found in grocery stores as it is the highest yielding, has the longest storage life and has the mildest flavor.
Soft neck garlic grows as a shallow rooted bulb. Each bulb can contain about 12-20 cloves, depending on growth conditions. A clove is made up of a green sprout at the center of the clove which produces the leaf stalk. Each leaf in the stalk is also a leaf layer surrounding the bulb.
The white, fleshy matter that surrounds the green sprout is known as a sheath and is what we commonly see when thinking of a garlic clove. The sheath is then protected by a dry film called the clove skin. The clove skin helps preserve the clove for longer shelf life and prevents the clove from rotting in the ground when planted.
Garlic needs about eight months from the time of planting to maturity and should be done in the fall for a harvest the following year between late May and early July. The cold, winter temperatures are what activate the bulbing of garlic and give the cloves their strong flavor.
Garlic will not bulb or mature if it does not have at least 6-8 weeks of cold temperatures
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Lighting and space are the two main factors to consider when looking for the right location in your garden to plant garlic.
Garlic needs at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day to grow healthily. Too little sunlight can cause the bulb growth to be stunted.
When deciding on the location, keep in mind that you will want to avoid planting the garlic cloves where similar crops in the onion family were planted the previous season. Planting crops in the same family, year after year, can create an influx in pests and diseases.
If you are planting your garlic in the ground, make sure to amend it with garden soil to loosen it up and to add nutrients. Soils that are too compact can reduce the size of the bulbs.
If you are planting your garlic cloves in raised beds or containers, fill them with garden soil at least 12 inches deep.
Whether you are planting in the ground or in containers, space each clove at least 6” apart to give each bulb enough room to expand into. Cloves planted too close together can create a reduction in bulb size or deformations.
Step 1: Separate each clove from the bulb, keeping the clove skin on.
Step 2: Find a location that gets 6-8 hrs of sun most of the day.
Step 3: Add a 4-5” layer of garden soil to the ground or fill containers with a 50/50 all purpose potting soil and compost mixture at least 18" deep.
Step 4: Make holes in the ground or container 2-3” deep, at least 6” apart with rows at least 12” apart.
Step 5: Place one clove in each hole with the pointed side straight up.
Step 6: Cover each clove with a layer of soil.
Step 7: Water each clove until the soil is saturated.
Step 8: Water 1” deep weekly or when soil begins to dry. Do not let the soil go completely dry.
Garlic gets most of its nutrients from the soils it is planted in. However, applying nitrogen in the form of compost initially and then a blood meal top dressing in the spring will promote larger bulb growth. Phosphorus and potassium should only be applied if the leaves of the plant show deficiencies. Our team can assist with monitoring the health of your garlic, feel free to book a checkup here.
Fertilizing your newly planted garlic cloves with epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) can increase the flavor of the garlic and improve the growth of the plant. Epsom salts increase the levels of sulfur in the soil and are responsible for the flavor compounds in garlic. The magnesium in epsom salts helps the plant absorb more nutrients which allows the plant to grow stronger.
Signs of nutrient deficiencies:
Nitrogen: Yellowing of older leaves and leaf tips
Phosphorus: Dark green or purple leaves
Potassium: Scorched outer leaves
If you choose to regularly fertilize your garlic, seize fertilizing about a month before harvest to prevent stunting the bulb growth.
Garlic should be ready to harvest in late May to early July after about eight months in the ground. The best way to tell if the bulb is ready to be harvested is when half the leaves at the top of the neck begin to brown. At this point, watering should cease in order to prevent rot. Removing the top layer of soil will allow you to tell if a healthy bulb has formed. The bulb should have developed a white sheath around it and the cloves should be tightly packed together.
Do not wash the bulbs until they have cured in a sunny location. Curing is the period between harvest and storing when the bulbs are given a chance to dry and level out their flavor. The curing process varies, but is complete when the roots are dry and brittle and the leaves have completely browned and died. This can take 1-2 weeks or more, depending on environmental factors such as humidity and sun exposure.
Step 1: Using the trowel, gently loosen the soil around the bulb.
Step 2: Holding the garlic at the base of the stalk, gently pull the garlic from the ground.
Step 3: Brush off any excess dirt from the bulbs.
Step 4: Lay the bulbs out in a dry, sunny location until the roots and leaves have browned and died.
Step 5: Cut the roots and leaf stalk back.
After the garlic bulbs have finished curing, store the bulbs in a cool, dry location. The storage location should not get too much sunlight or the cloves will begin to sprout. Keeping the bulbs in the refrigerator will also cause them to sprout. If there is too much humidity or moisture, mold can develop on the bulbs. Moldy bulbs should be discarded to prevent the spread to other bulbs.
Keeping the bulbs intact will prolong their storage life. Softneck garlic bulbs can be stored for 8-12 months and individual cloves can be stored for about three weeks. Another way of preserving garlic is to can or pickle it in a brine or freeze the individual cloves.
If you have any more questions about how to care for your garlic plants, we will be happy to assist you in a virtual telehealth appointment with one of our Plant Specialists. Please click on one of the options below to book an appointment.