Growing garlic is easy and gratifying. For starters, it tastes infinitely better than store-bought. Secondly, there are also tons and tons of wonderful cultivated varieties to choose from that vary in size, color, heat, and flavor. Garlic isn’t just garlic when you become tuned into its diversity (just check out the offerings at The Garlic Store). And fall is the time to plant it.
The cultivation process begins in fall when the soil is still workable, usually between October and December. Just like any other root crop, the best bulbs develop in well-drained, friable garden loam. Then amend with compost, such as Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost, and add some bulb fertilizer for assured success
For planting, dig holes 3 to 6 inches deep and 12 to 16 inches apart. Set a single clove in each hole with the tip pointing upwards and the blunt root base down to a depth of 4-5 inches. Cover with soil, water, and wait. Within a couple of weeks, sprouts should rise from the soil, and the plants may reach 6 inches or more before heavy frosts hit. Garlic will overwinter in an evergreen to semi-evergreen state where winters are mild but will die back in colder zones.
Garlic Growth Cycle
In spring, garlic plants will emerge and leaf up, and by late spring to early summer each will produce a heronesque flower or bulbil bud. The buds should be removed as soon as they appear or they’ll deplete the precious garlic bulbs underground. Just clip the stems back to the main plant, but don’t throw away the buds. They’re also good eating and look and taste great stir-fried or sautéed.
Some garlic varieties produce earlier in the season and others produce later, so it’s nice to plant a seasonal variety that will mature at different times. On average, most cultivars are harvestable by midsummer. You will know they are ready when their tops begin to turn brown. Refrain from watering the plants at this time to keep bulbs from rotting.
When the tops start to turn dry and begin to bend down, the cloves are ready to harvest. Dig the bulbs and allow them to dry in a cool, airy place away from sunlight. The drying technique depends on the garlic type. Softneck garlic can be hung to dry in braids, and the tops of hard-neck types can be cut and the bulbs dried on a dry, breathable surface. Store in a cool, dry place.
Softneck and Hardneck Garlic Varieties
Choosing the right garlic for you depends on where you live and the flavor your favor. The key distinction between types is whether they are soft or hardnecked. Softneck garlic is the most popular type grown in Europe and the American South. It grows better in milder climates (but will still grow well pretty far north), stores for longer, and has flexible necks that allow mature bulbs and plants to be easily braided into hanging garlic braids.
There are two softneck forms, silverskin and artichoke. Silverskin soft-neck garlic has smooth, silvery skin, more cloves and keeps for a very long time. Artichoke has coarser skin, fewer, larger cloves and a milder flavor. Still, heat, pungency, and flavor vary widely from cultivar to cultivar, so consider this when choosing garlic to grow.
Hardneck garlic is more commonly grown in northern and eastern Europe, Russia and North-Central Asia. It grows better in cooler climates, has a shorter storage life, and stiff necks that attach to the bulbs. This type produces fewer, larger cloves, which are fragrant and vary in flavor depending on the cultivar. Hardneck types are believed to be more closely related to wild garlic.
The rewards of growing garlic are great. Homegrown bulbs have superior taste, you can grow lots of different types that vary in flavor, and they are cheap. Specialty varieties usually sell out early in the season, but gardeners wishing to experiment with garlic growing this late in the season still have an option. Garlic cloves from the grocery store (which are always softneck) work just as well. Just separate the cloves and plant away.