It’s Time for Garlic!

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Article written by Erik Jul, Master Gardener℠ Volunteer in Henderson County

  • Garlic (Allium sativum) is a tasty and healthful addition to many recipes and a key part of many cuisines worldwide.
  • Growing your own garlic is fun and easy, and now—mid-October to early November in zone 7–is the time to plant.
  • Fall’s shorter days and cooler temperatures induce vernalization, a period of exposure to low temperature before the plant’s apical meristem will transition from vegetative to reproductive development. In simple terms, this essential process causes the single seed clove to form the desired multi-clove garlic bulb.

Seed Garlic

If you are planting garlic for the first time, order seed garlic from a trusted provider. You will quickly discover many varieties not commonly available at the grocery store. This is part of the adventure of growing your own garlic—new colors, flavors, sizes, and growing habits.

You will also choose among varieties: hardneck (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) and softneck (Allium sativum var. sativum). Hardneck varieties produce a graceful central flowering stem, or scape, which many gardeners harvest and enjoy for the delicate flavor, color, and texture. Softneck varieties tend to store better.
Avoid using garlic purchased from a local grocery store as your seed garlic.

garlic

Photo credit: Author’s garden showing softneck garlic growing in a 4’ x 8’ raised bed, which accommodated 152 plants. This yielded enough for personal use and seed garlic for the following year. Each year’s garlic, properly stored, lasted a year, from one harvest to another.

Planting

Garlic is a hardy and highly adaptive plant, but gardeners enjoy grater success planting in well drained soil rich with composted organic matter. As with any plant grown primarily for the underground portion, hard, compacted soil will hinder root and bulb formation. Take the time to augment your soil by adding humus.

Handle your seed garlic gently. Remove loose outer “paper” to expose the cloves, and then gently work the cloves loose from the top, or, more pointed part of a clove, to the bottom, or more blunt part of the clove. Take care not to remove any of the skin from the clove, and do not plant cloves with torn skin as they will rot.

As you work the cloves loose, gently break off one clove at a time. Plant the largest cloves (take the remainder inside and use them in your kitchen). Plant each clove, blunt side down and pointed side up, three inches deep and six inches apart. Cover with soil and tamp gently to ensure good soil contact. Water in and then cover your entire bed with a thick layer, four to six inches, of straw or leaves. This think layer will help to protect shoots that may start to grow. In the spring, about the time that daffodils bloom, pull the mulch back from the young shoots but leave it on the bed to continue to decompose, hinder weed growth, and help to preserve soil moisture.

The Growing Season

Garlic is a heavy feeder, and it is unlikely that your soil or the compost you applied at planting will provide sufficient nutrients. If you choose to fertilize, select a product that is high is phosphorus and potassium, which promote root growth. For example, an NPK ratio of 3-20-20 is low in nitrogen, which would prompt green leaf growth, and higher in both phosphorus and potassium. And, while nitrogen for the garlic leaves is essential, we are growing garlic for the underground bulb, not the above-ground leaves. Too much nitrogen may overstimulate leaf growth at the expense of root and bulb formation. Stop fertilizing in May.

soil testing

  • Remember, soil test results are the best guide to selecting and applying fertilizers in the proper amounts and ratios.
  • Keep your garlic evenly watered, but garlic can endure dry spells.

Harvesting

Your garlic plants have produced leaves and scapes (hardneck only) that may now be two feet tall. Cut the scapes as they emerge to prevent the plant from putting energy into producing flowers. In mid-June, you will notice the lower leaves starting to turn yellow (see photo). When two or three leaves on each plant are yellow, it’s time to dig up a test bulb. Dig, do not pull, the bulb, shake off the dirt, and examine the bulb. You should see a rich network of roots at the base of a garlic bulb. If it looks much like the original seed bulb in size and shape, your crop is ready to harvest.

Harvest too soon, and you will not get fully mature bulbs; too late, and the bulbs will begin to rot. You may need to pull several test bulbs a week apart.
Shake the soil from the roots (do not wash), trim the roots off with shears, and lay your harvested plants out to dry in a ventilated area for 10-14 days.

You may want to select your seed garlic for your next crop. Choose the largest bulbs with the largest cloves, and save them in paper bag. Store your garlic in well-ventilated containers out of the light, and you will enjoy your fresh garlic now and for months to come.

References
Meredith, Ted Jordan. The Complete Book of Garlic: A Guide for Gardeners, Growers, and Serious Cooks. Portland, OR: Timber Press, Inc, 2008.
Smith, Edward C. The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2009.