If you haven't tasted homegrown garlic (or at least garlic grown by your local farmers), you are truly missing out. Follow my simple and easy guide to grow your own garlic effortlessly and let mother nature do her thing.
I'm not sure how it is in the rest of the world, but here in Canada, most of the grocery stores carry Chinese garlic year-round. It is accessible. It is cheap. And it does the job. However, in an effort to eat more local produce that isn't shipped half-way around the world, I decided to grow a little bit of garlic in 2018/2019 to see if I can do it successfully. And let me tell you, I was definitely successful. So much so that I scaled up big time in fall 2019 with the hopes of having an even bigger harvest in 2020.
Selecting the right seed garlic
So let's take a step back. Garlic is a bulb and therefore grows under ground. It is in the same genus (Allium) as leeks, onions, chives and shallots. You can technically plant garlic purchased from a store, but I think it is better to purchase certified disease free "seed garlic" from reputable suppliers. Seed Garlic is not actually the seeds of a garlic flower, but rather garlic cloves that were grown specifically for replanting in following years. What's great about buying seed garlic from a reputable supplier is that they have a wide variety to choose from. I personally have grown Red Russian, Red German, Mexican, and Music.
Hardneck vs. Softneck Garlic
The two main types of garlic are hardneck and softneck. The neck refers to the stalk that grows up from the garlic clove in the spring. Hardneck garlic produces a stem that becomes rigid as the plant grows and then eventually cures. Softneck garlic produces a soft stalk made up mostly of leaves (no central stalk). The leaves maintain their flexibility as they dry.
Harneck garlic is better suited for colder climates whereas softneck garlic is better suited for milder climates. Those cool looking garlic braids are made with softneck garlic (the foliage remains pliable and can be braided).
When to plant your garlic cloves
Since garlic is planted in the fall and harvested in early summer, timing your planting will depend on when you expect your first frost (if you even get a first frost) to show up. Here in Southern Ontario Canada, you can plant your garlic in October or even November. In colder regions where winter arrives sooner, you may want to plant your garlic in September. You'll need to do a little research specific to your growing region.
How to plant your garlic cloves
An important distinction here. You do not plant the whole garlic head, but rather the cloves. So when it is time to plant, separate your bulbs into cloves carefully making sure the papery layers are intact.
You need rich, loose soil to get a good harvest. Amend your beds with compost or manure. Do not compact the soil. Plant each clove (with pointy end facing up) 2-3 inches deep (5cm-7cm) and space them about by 6 inches (15cm). You could space them out more if you have room in your garden. I have a small urban garden and need to maximize every square inch of space.
Cover with soil and mulch for winter protection. I also cover my garlic beds with some netting to help deter squirrels and another wildlife from digging up hard work!
Plant the garlic and forget about it... until spring!
Spring is here... now what?
Weather is warming up, snow is melting, and spring is officially here. So what do you do now? Nothing. Assuming that your cloves were viable and you followed the planting directions property, you will soon start to see green leaves pushing through the ground. The shoots will grow vigorously through the spring and early summer. Make sure to keep the beds watered and you can also fertilize with an all purpose organic fertilizer if you wish.
Harvesting the Scapes
Around mid-June, hardneck varieties of garlic send up a scape. What is a scape? It is a round stalk that has the garlic flower head at the tip. The scape will grow upwards and then begin to curl. Once the scape has curled and formed a circle, you can (and should) harvest it. You can snap it off with your fingers or a paid or scissors but make sure to only cut off the scape and none of the leaves.
Removing the scape forces the garlic plant to refocus energy on bulb growth, which is exactly what we want. Big, aromatic and healthy garlic bulbs.
If you are thinking if discarding the scapes, then I'm going to stop you right there! The scapes are edible and delicious. They have a mild garlic flavor that is quite pleasant and not harsh. Scapes can be grilled, pan fried, pickled, turned into salad dressing or my favorite, used to make Garlic Scape Pesto. I also pickle them for future use.
Check out my Garlic Scape Pesto recipe here!
After I harvest my scapes, I give the garlic bed one final phosphorous rich feed (usually a 1-10-10 fish emulsion). This helps promote bulb growth. I then stop watering entirely. This is an important step to make sure your bulbs do not rot and that the soil is dry when you harvest in a few weeks.
Harvesting the Bulbs
When to harvest the bulbs can be tricky, especially for a first time grower. The reason is that we have no idea what is going on under the ground. If you harvest too early, the bulbs will be small and will not store well. If you wait too long, the bulbs will split and won't have the protective wrapper. We have to look at the garlic greens for clues.
Garlic greens begin to brown and die from the bottom up. You will know it is time to harvest the bulbs when the bottom 3-4 leaves have died back and you still have a few green leaves at the top. You can carefully dig up one bulb and check the size. If it feels undersized, you can let your garlic continue to grow for a couple more weeks.
When you decide to pull the bulbs up, you need to be very careful. I use my hands to remove the soil around the garlic greens to expose the bulbs and carefully pull up. You can also use a garden fork to loosen up the soil, but I still think you should use your hands the first time you harvest garlic.
After you've pulled your garlic, and removed most of the large clumps of dirt from them, you'll want to to lay them out on a table or other surface to dry slightly in the sun. This is a precursor to the curing process. I just leave them out for a few hours and then come back and gently remove any remaining soil. The bulbs shouldn't be clean. A little dirt is ok and will eventually come off as the bulbs dry. Do not wash or get the bulbs wet. DO NOT CUT OFF THE GARLIC STEMS! Not yet at least!
Curing and storing
Curing garlic bulbs is essential to ensure long term storage. You can hang bundles of 5 or 6 together or lay all your garlic flat on a mesh or screen to ensure good airflow. The best place to do this is a covered porch, shed or barn away from the sun but with good air flow. I personally cure my garlic in my basement. After 2 weeks, the stems and leaves should be completely brown. If you feel they are not quite dry, you can continue to cure for an additional week.
After curing is complete, trim the roots and stems and store your garlic in a cool, dark place.
Pests and diseases
As an organic gardener, my choices for disease and pest control are minimal. Practicing good hardening hygiene, rotating crops and sanitizing equipment go a long way in preventing disease.
Rust is an airborne pathogen that is quite common and easily transmitted from infected plant material. Symptoms include yellow rust-like spots on garlic leaves. If your garlic plants develop rust, pull them up. Discard the greens in the garbage (not the compost) and use the immature bulbs for your culinary needs or dry them to make garlic powder.
Mites attack the bulbs underground which can cause the garlic plants to be susceptible to other diseases and rot. Foliage will yellow and die and growth will be severely stunted. Pull the plants and rotate crops.
As the name suggests, this pest attacks leeks, onions and other alliums like garlic. Moths lay their eggs on tender allium leaves. The larvae will mine the leaves and then when they are ready to pupate, they will spin a fine cocoon as seen in the first picture. There could be as many as 3 generations in a season, with the last overwintering underground and starting all over the next year. They can also affect the stems and bulbs of garlic and other alliums.