Grow garlic the organic way
Tips on how to grow organic garlic including varieties, planting direct and in modules, after care, harvesting, and storage
One of the easiest crops to grow in an organic garden is garlic. It’s hardy, suffers few pests, and in mid-summer will reward you with dozens of bulbs that can be dried out and used over the next six months to a year.
For the past four years I’ve grown my own crops organically, transforming each garlic clove I plant into a brand new bulb. I’ve learned a lot over that time but most of all I’ve learned that growing garlic is easy. If you’re just starting out and wondering what vegetables to begin with then keep it in mind. Garlic is one of the most rewarding crops you can grow!
Choose your garlic
Garlic comes in two main types: ‘Soft-neck’ and ‘Hard-neck’. Most kitchen gardeners tend to go with soft-neck varieties since they produces more and bigger cloves. Soft-neck garlic also stores for a long time and their dried necks can easily be plaited. Garlic you see in the supermarket or hanging in ornamental braids is almost always soft-neck. Here are some popular varieties of soft-neck garlic:
Hard-neck varieties literally have a hard neck. This neck becomes a ‘Garlic Scape’ that can be trimmed off and used in cooking. If you leave it growing, it will form tiny bulbs at the top of the stem. Although less commonly grown by the average kitchen gardener, hard-neck varieties are said to have more complex flavor and are considered more gourmet. Here are some popular varieties of hard-neck garlic:
The best time to plant garlic is Autumn and early Winter
Garlic needs around six to eight months to mature so theoretically if you planted them in March you’d only harvest your crop in September. Here on the Isle of Man we have a mild winter and bright yet cool summer — it rarely gets above 80F/25C. Sometimes it cools off quickly at the end of the summer and that wouldn’t be an ideal situation for garlic. They need a bit of heat to mature and for you to dry them out for storage.
Whether you’re in a similar climate or not, you’ll want to give your garlic a head-start. This means planting your cloves between October and December (a month before your first frost date) so that they have a chance to send up hardy green shoots. The traditional time for planting garlic is actually the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year usually falling on December 21st. Although they don’t do much for the next month after, they’ll eventually send up little green shoots that will burst into life in spring.
- Garlic will arrive in bulbs, don’t separate them into cloves until you’re ready to plant.
- Gently break the bulbs into individual cloves and plant direct in the soil or in modules with 1.5-2″ square cavities. Each clove should have a bit of the original bulb’s base still attached.
- Planting in modules is a great way to grow garlic if you know your garden is going to be wet and boggy over the winter. Garlic does not like having ‘wet feet’.
- Garlic will grow in most types of soil but it needs to be free-draining. That means sandy, loamy soil or fluffy compost for the modules.
- Plant each clove with the pointy end sticking up. This pointy end should be sitting about 1-2″ below the surface of the soil if you’re planting in the ground. It can be just under the soil surface if you’re planting in modules.
- Water the cloves in well and set your modules outside in a sunny and sheltered part of your patio/garden
- If you’ve planted into modules make sure to keep the soil moist. Saying that, I literally don’t water mine at all after the first time since the Isle of Man is very damp.
- Garlic is hardy and these little green shoots can ride out wet, wind, cold, and snow. Saying that, if you have really cold winters, it might be worth covering your garlic shoots with white horticultural fleece in early winter.
Garlic will begin to grow again in early Spring
Each year in late March I’ll plant the garlic I grew in modules out into the garden. By this time I’ll have noticed them starting to grow again and when I lift them out of the modules their root systems are bright, branching, and looking for more space to grow.
- Plant garlic out in the garden in free-draining soil with plenty of direct sunlight
- The soil should have had some manure, garden compost, or a balanced organic feed worked into the soil before.
- Garlic needs moist soil that isn’t boggy.
- Mulch around your plants with mushroom compost, garden compost, or straw. Mulch protects the plants against cold, stops competing weeds from growing, and helps keep the soil underneath moist.
- Place your plants (or bulbs, if you’re direct planting) 12″ apart and in rows that are 6-12″ apart. Technically they can be grown in tighter conditions but your harvested bulbs won’t be as big and you’ll have trouble weeding and/or hoeing between them.
- Plant your module grown plants at the same level that they’re growing at. Firm them in afterwards by pressing the soil with your fingers.
Garlic is an easy crop to care for
Once garlic is planted out into the ground they’re easy to care for. I do very little for my plants while they’re growing except to make sure that weeds are not growing among my patch. I also make sure that the soil they’re growing in is always moist. This means mulching the top of the soil with compost and soil.
Most animals and birds will steer clear of garlic so you shouldn’t have too many issues with them. The only real disease that I’ve seen them come down with is ‘Rust’ which is a kind of rusty mottling on the leaves. It doesn’t hurt the bulb though so if you’re close to harvest time don’t be too concerned. If you spot it earlier in the season though it can be a problem. Snip off the leaves as soon as you see it happening and make sure to bin them rather than put them on your compost heap.
Garlic is ready for me to dig up in late June and early July. I dig them up all at once and then take them home to dry in the garage. If you live in a sunnier place, you can dry them outdoors. Just make sure that you let them get as dry as possible before putting them in bags or braids. Here’s some more tips on harvesting:
- When you notice the bottom leaves of the plants beginning to turn yellow it’s almost harvest time. Try not to water the plants too much in the last month of their growing time.
- When the bottom 1/3rd of the leaves are yellow it’s time to dig them up.
- On a dry day, use a garden fork to gently pull the garlic up. Brush as much of the soil off them as you can. Don’t wash them with water since it will cause the bulbs to spoil.
- Set them on a screen, a table, or another dry surface and let them dry out completely — both greens and bulbs
- When bone-dry, you can braid the garlic, tie it in bunches, or snip off the dried foliage and put your garlic in paper/cloth bags for storage.
- The dirty roots and skins of the garlic will clean up nicely by just rubbing with your fingers.
- Soft-neck garlic can last between 6-12 months
- Hard-neck garlic can last between 4-6 months
- Use some of your harvested garlic cloves to grow next year’s crops. Once you’ve invested in garlic, you can continue growing from year to year with no added expense.
One last tip…soft-neck garlic has a lot more layers of skin over the bulb and cloves which make them last longer. These layers also make them a pain to peel and prepare in the kitchen. Invest in the same Pampered Chef Garlic Press that I have though and you’ll never worry about that again! You simply put the un-peeled clove(s) inside, press the handle down, and the garlic squishes through the holes.
If you’d like more tips on how to grow your own food, head over here for ideas.