Garlic Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Tips
Selecting your seed garlic:
Garlic plants, like potatoes, are clones. Individual cloves of garlic are split off from a head and replanted in order to produce more plants. Each clove will produce a genetically identical copy of the mother plant. Therefore, starting with a genetically strong, healthy, and hearty variety will increase chances of a successful yield. With garlic, you should only have to buy seed once. Just hold back a portion of your summer harvest for fall planting, and you will always have your own supply of fresh cloves.
The best source for seed garlic is from small online growers or, even more locally, a farmer at your local farmers market. Any head of garlic can be split into cloves and replanted, even those from the grocery store. However, we highly discourage the planting of conventional garlic for a number of reasons. First, it often comes from overcrowded fields with high levels of disease and pests managed through chemical means. Once introduced into the soil, garlic diseases are notoriously difficult to eliminate. Secondly, grocery store garlic is often old and past its planting prime, and thus less likely to thrive. Finally, the vast majority of any garlic you buy at the grocery store will be one of two varieties: California Early, or California Late – but there exists a whole world of more interesting and more tasty garlic varieties than just those two. Seeking out farmers locally that grow garlic via organic means will ensure that you get a plant that is accustomed to growing by its own accord, and hasn’t been helped along with fertilizers and pesticides which, potentially, could weaken its natural defenses. It will also provide you with some fun varieties to grow and compare.
Hardneck Vs. Softneck Garlic
The first choice in selecting seed garlic is deciding which type and variety to plant. Garlic comes as two main types: hardneck and softneck. Within those two categories, there are 10 “families” of garlic. However, in buying garlic for backyard gardening, you will rarely see extensive information on the garlic families. More probably, you will see descriptions of the individual varieties, identified by a varietal name such as Bogatyr, Romanian Red, or Nootka Rose.
What’s the difference?
As the name indicates, hardneck garlic grows a hard stalk (neck). In the ground, the garlic cloves form around this stalk, resulting in a large head of garlic with relatively few, but very large cloves. For those who often cook with fresh garlic, hardneck tends to be the favorite choice, due to those large and, perhaps more key, easy-to-peel cloves. Softneck varieties do not have this hard stalk running through the middle of the plant. Instead, the stalk is soft and pliable stalk and the heads of garlic form with large cloves around the outside and smaller and smaller cloves running through to the middle. This is the type of garlic most are accustomed to seeing in the grocery store.
Just as hardneck varieties are often preferred for fresh cooking, softneck varieties are often selected for storage. A typical softneck will store for around nine months after harvest as compared to the hardneck’s much shorter (but still impressive) five months. Additionally, (and perhaps obviously) the softneck garlics are used for braiding due to both the pliable neck and long storage capacity. Hang a braid of 30 garlic heads on a kitchen wall, and you may well be set to get through the winter.
Planting and Caring for Garlic
Unlike most garden crops, garlic is planted in the fall. Here in Colorado, we plant our garlic from mid to late October. Garlic requires a period of vernalization – exposure to cold temperatures – in order to start growing in the spring. Once planted in the fall, it will start growing, establish roots, and then go dormant for the cold season. When temperatures start warming in the spring, the garlic “wakes up” and resumes growing, throwing out little green shoots from the ground with the earliest of the spring vegetables.
Garlic is a resilient crop and while any crop will grow best under ideal conditions, garlic seems to tolerate a wide variety of climates and soils. Its historic roots as a wild plant growing in the rocky deserts of Asia make it a hearty survivor, but babying it a little will help increase yield. Like nearly all vegetables, garlic requires full sunlight and, ideally, soil with a good nutrient base and enough organic material that the underground bulbs have room to grow. Hard clay makes the garlic have to fight to expand and can affect bulb size. For garlic to size up nicely, it requires regular water, especially in the early spring and summer while it is still developing its green leaves.
Garlic is a member of the allium family and compared to other vegetables, alliums compete poorly with weeds due to their relatively thin stalks and leaves. Keep weeds, especially tall weeds, under control.
For us in Colorado, garlic usually comes out of the ground sometime during the last week of June to the first week of July. While that rough timeline may apply to a fairly large chunk of the lower 48, we can’t speak with confidence about states with significantly different climates from ours, so always ask your local growers at farmers’ markets about their timelines. Additionally, the timeline on different varieties varies by up to 3 weeks or so, so do your research before hand and watch your garlic as it reaches maturity.
Since we grow mostly hardneck garlic varieties, we start the countdown to harvest when the garlic scapes (garlic’s flower bulb) show up, almost always during the first week of June. When the scape grows out until it curls around once, we harvest the scapes, give the garlic one more deep watering, and then shut off all water to the garlic patch. Garlic will store better if you let it “dry down” or begin curing, in the ground. We allow the garlic to sit in the ground without water for around two weeks before actually beginning harvest. Harvest is almost always the first days of July.
If you have only softneck varieties which don’t produce a scape, you can mark your time to harvest by counting leaves. Knowing that we usually harvest around the first of July, we start counting garlic leaves in June. As garlic matures, the bottom leaves of plants start turning brown and curling down toward the stalk. When 7-8 green leaves are left on the majority of the plants, that’s the signal to cut off water. Harvest the softneck when 6-7 green leaves are left.
As we get closer to the harvest date, we regularly pull a head here and there to see both the size and the clove development. Ideally, we’re looking for nice-sized heads and fully developed cloves, but we don’t want the heads to stay in the ground so long that the cloves start to bulge out and separate from the head. If you see signs of cloves separating, they need to come out of the ground right away.
You’ll need good digging tools to pull your garlic. We generally use potato forks, but for small patches a standard shovel will work as well. Perhaps the biggest key to harvesting garlic: don’t puncture the heads. When digging garlic, set your shovel or fork several inches back from the plant, push it down deeply into the soil (you want to get deeper than the head of garlic) and lift the soil around the heads. This will snap off the roots, allowing you to then simply grab the garlic by the stalk and shake off the excess soil.
Once pulled from the ground, garlic should be immediately moved into the shade, as fresh garlic can sunburn, which will affect its storage life.
Even when careful, we inevitably puncture a few heads every harvest. Garlic damaged during harvest is perfectly good to eat, but will not keep. Take it back to the kitchen, clean it, and store it in the refrigerator for use within a week or so.
The garlic you pull from the ground will not just miraculously cure into the dried bulbs you see in the grocery store. In order to cure, garlic should be hung in a shaded, dry location, with air movement. Hot, dry, and breezy is ideal. Out of direct sunlight is mandatory. In Colorado, our climate works beautifully for this. Barns and sheds work great, but so do covered patios and garages.
Garlic should be disturbed as little as possible before curing, so do not clean garlic before drying it. Simply shake off the largest clumps of soil.
Tie the garlic in small bunches and hang. We hang ours in daisy chains of 10 groups of 10 heads each to make it easy for counting (see photo), but most backyard gardeners won’t need to worry about that quantity. However, keeping the hanging bunches to about 10 heads reduces the chance of them molding as they dry. The more leaves you have bunched together, the more moisture is present and the greater chance of mold. Our climate is so dry, we have never had mold issues, but this is an important consideration in more humid areas.
Depending on your drying location (and, largely, on your climate) garlic will take 2-4 weeks to dry down. At any point during this process, you can still be eating it! Cut the heads down as you need them, peel, and eat.
Once the stalks of garlic are completely dried down, showing no signs of green through the middle, and the outside of the garlic is dry and papery to the touch, it’s ready to take down. Cut off the stalks a half inch to an inch above the head and brush off any remaining soil. If your garlic is for home use, this is enough of a cleaning. If you want it to look exceptionally pretty (as we do for market) you can carefully peel off the outermost layer of skin, leaving the clean, unblemished layer exposed. However, if you choose to do this, take care to remove only the outer layer. Removing too much of the dried skin will affect storage life. In general, the less you mess with the cured heads of garlic, the longer they will store, so if you can handle a slightly dirty head of garlic, that’s best!
Store garlic in a dry area, out of direct sunlight, where it has some air circulation. We keep all of our heads without stalks (hardneck and any softneck that we don’t braid) in baskets in the kitchen and pantry. Garlic braids can be hung anywhere out of direct sunlight from the windows and away from heat (not by the stove!)
Hardneck varieties should last about five months from harvest and softneck about 9 months, so peel, eat, and enjoy!