October 17, 1997 (revised November 3, 1999)
With all the garden chores that have to be done during late summer and fall, it can be hard to remember that planting needs to be done as well; at least for some crops. I'm not just referring to cover crops and green manures. Some vegetables that will be harvested in spring or summer need to go in now, the most commonly grown being garlic.
I must confess that I love garlic. I enjoy eating hummis so garlicky that its maker apologizes for it. When making garlic butter, I tend to use twice the number of cloves called for in the recipe. Even the cloves added to flavor pickles are fair game for me! So once I discovered how easy it is to grow, I was hooked.
There are two basic types of true garlic: Soft-necks and hard-necks, which are further divided into hundreds of different strains. Soft-neck garlic varieties get their name from the fact that they only produce leaves, never sending up a flower stalk. They are great for braiding, and tend to store longer than hard-neck types. Hard-neck types are those that produce a flower stalk, which sometimes can be quite ornamental. Hard-neck garlic cloves tend to peel easier than those of soft-neck garlic. A third common type, Elephant garlic, isn't really garlic at all! It's actually a leek. Culturally it should be treated just like true garlic.
Actually when it comes to garlic, the term "flower stalk" is a bit misleading. Garlic generally does not produce either flowers or seeds. Hard-neck varieties of garlic produce small bulbils - basically miniature cloves - in a cluster at the top of the stalk. These can be planted like any other cloves, but they usually require two years of growth to produce mature bulbs. Elephant garlic will produce a very pretty flower if allowed to, similar to ornamental alliums.
Garlic is one of the easier crops to grow. In my experience the biggest problem has been poor winter drainage. I grow my garlic in a raised bed for this reason, although in an exceptionally wet winter they may still rot. Another advantage to using a raised bed is the lack of soil compaction - the bulbs find it easier to develop.
You've all heard the saying "plant your garlic on the shortest day of the year, and harvest it on the longest". If you live in Southern California, perhaps this applies to you. Here in the maritime Pacific Northwest, though, garlic needs more time to develop. I like to plant my garlic around October 1. This gives the cloves plenty of time to set out roots, and even to develop some top growth - I tend to be paranoid, so the evidence that the cloves are actually growing is much appreciated. You can put the garlic in the ground anytime in fall, as long as the ground is still workable. If the ground is too cold and wet, though, the cloves may rot before they can start growing. If you plant it late in fall, you probably won't see any above-ground growth until about the time daffodils start poking up out of the soil.
Planting garlic is a snap. Take your garlic bulb and divide it into the individual cloves, but do not peel them (if the skin does come off some of them, they'll usually still do okay). The general rule of thumb is to use the largest cloves from the largest bulbs for planting, and save the rest for eating. Set the cloves, root ends down, about two inches into the ground; 4-6 inches apart in rows 15-18 inches apart. Cover them with soil. No fertilizer should be added at this time. Gardeners who live in areas where the soil freezes mulch their garlic with a heavy layer of straw or hay at planting time. In our maritime climate, though, this isn't a good idea. Thick mulch will inhibit the already painfully slow spring soil warm-up, which delays the onset of plant growth and interferes with nutrient uptake. I like to mulch my garlic bed with a few inches of leaves in late fall to keep the rain from compacting the soil; but I take care to remove them again in February.
In late winter or early spring you should see leaves poking up out of the ground. This is a good time to band blood meal alongside the rows, a good handful (~ ½ cup) per every five feet of row. In April you should fertilize again with a complete organic fertilizer - I use ½ cup per five feet, shallowly worked into the soil alongside the row. As with all alliums, the idea is to get the biggest plant possible before the tops begin to dry down.
Be sure to keep the garlic bed well weeded. Garlic, like other alliums, is rather weak-rooted; so it doesn't compete well with other plants.
Harvest your garlic after about half the leaves have died down. This is somewhat variety dependent, but generally occurs in July. Dig the bulbs carefully. If you are concerned about appearance, it is permissible to wash them with a strong spray of water - just be sure they are allowed to dry immediately afterward.
You can buy seed garlic in many places, but really that's unnecessary. If there's a garlic you like from the grocery store, take the biggest cloves and plant them! The most reliable garlic in my garden came from Safeway. If you are looking for special garlic varieties, though, get a copy of the Filaree Farms catalog. They sell over 100 types of garlic!
All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated July 9, 2011