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Garlic is one of the most rewarding crops you can grow, even as a beginner. You plant it and just sit back and watch it produce an incredible harvest! Here’s how to grow garlic, including recommended varieties and my tips on growing, harvesting, and storing it. I also include a video showing how I braid garlic to look gorgeous in the pantry.
One of the easiest crops to grow in the garden is garlic, Allium sativum. It’s hardy, suffers few pests, and will reward you with dozens of bulbs around mid-summer. Other than keeping weeds at bay, there’s practically nothing else to do as far as aftercare once you plant them in autumn. Then, around six months later, you lift them, dry them out, and use them in cooking over the next three to nine months. Garlic is also a great investment in garden space since you can get a fantastic harvest from relatively small beds. It’s a staple in my vegetable garden and relatively fuss-free, meaning you plant and harvest it with very little work in between.
These tips will be useful if you’re new to growing garlic or wondering when to harvest it. I’ve also included advice on recommended varieties, how to dry, braid, and store garlic, and what happens if you harvest garlic a bit too late.
Softneck vs. Hardneck Garlic
There are two main types of garlic: ‘Softneck’ and ‘Hardneck.’ They’ll both form delicious garlic cloves, and many gardeners can grow both types. However, there are some main differences in how to grow and care for them. The obvious difference between the two is that softneck garlic grows a soft neck that can be braided easily. Hardneck garlic grows garlic scapes with hard stems coming up right through the garlic leaves. These flower stems form a hard neck that is difficult to braid. There are more differences that I’ll cover as we go on, but first, let’s have a closer look at softneck garlic.
Growing Softneck Garlic
Many kitchen gardeners grow softneck varieties since they’re easy to grow in temperate climates, produce more cloves, and store very well. They also don’t form garlic scapes, which must be pruned off. Another bonus is that you can plant it outdoors in autumn, winter, or early spring since it tends not to need a cold period to begin growing bulbs. That means if you’re running late with getting your garlic in autumn, you still have time to get it in at the beginning of the growing year.
Softneck garlic stores very well, and it’s not uncommon for me to have last year’s garlic harvest last until late spring the next year. I store them both hung up and loose in containers and someplace dry and at a cool room temperature. Softneck garlic’s dried necks are soft, pliable, and easily plaited. The garlic you see in the supermarket or hanging in ornamental braids is almost always softneck. Softneck types popular to grow include:
- Inchelium Red Softneck Garlic (USA)
- Sicilian Artichoke Softneck Garlic (USA)
- Nootka Rose Softneck Garlic (USA)
- Silver White Softneck Garlic (USA)
- Picardy Wight (UK)
- Germidour (UK)
Growing Hard Neck Garlic
Hardneck varieties literally have a hard neck. This neck sprouts a garlic scape (flower stalk) around a month before the garlic is ready to harvest. You need to cut it off when you see them since leaving scapes on can weaken the plant and reduce the size of your bulbs. Fortunately, garlic scapes are tasty and can be used in cooking! You can chop it up and use it as you would any other garlicky green, or blend it up with butter and freeze it for later in the year. If you do leave the scape on, it will eventually transform into bulbils, tiny edible garlic cloves. Not a bad thing, but the cloves on your garlic will be small, too.
Hardneck varieties have fewer cloves than softneck, but they can be bigger. Some chefs also consider them to have a more complex flavor. If you’re growing garlic, hardneck is hardier than softneck, so they are better suited for those growing garlic in cold climates. That’s why you’ll see hardneck garlic so popular in places with cold winter temperatures, such as Canada and northern parts of the USA.
Hardneck garlic also needs 4-6 weeks of cold temperatures (under 5⁰C /40⁰ F) to start growing bulbs. Without that cold, your heads of garlic may be small or not split into individual cloves. You can trick hardneck garlic into thinking it’s been through a cold winter with a little vacation in the fridge. Keep garlic chilled for a month before you plant it, and it will grow and produce beautifully. Here are some popular varieties of hardneck garlic:
The Best Time to Plant Garlic is Autumn
Garlic loves a sunny spot with rich, moisture-retentive soil. They prefer a soil pH of about 6-7 and will reward you if you spend some time adding fertility to the soil beforehand. You can do this by top-dressing the soil with a layer of compost no-dig style – this is what I do these days. You can also work organic fertilizer into the soil, such as blood meal, and break up heavy clay soil before planting.
Most garlic needs around six to eight months to mature, which is around the end of June to July. That means if you plant your garlic in spring, it might not have as much time to grow and fill out as it would have if you plant in autumn. This applies to both softneck and hardneck varieties, though there are some softneck varieties that need less time to develop and can be planted in very early spring.
However, the best time to plant garlic is from late September to late December, planting it at least a month before your region’s first frost. Most people who have been growing garlic for years, including me, plant garlic in October, and that goes for a wide range of growing zones! If you get them in during autumn, you can often see garlic shoots and leaves before Christmas. Softneck varieties take their time for me, and I don’t expect growth from them until January, regardless of when they went in the previous autumn.
More Vegetable Gardening Inspiration
- How to Know When to Harvest Potatoes
- How to Forage Wild Garlic: ID Tips and Where to Look
- Tips on Growing the Egyptian Walking Onion
- 7 Ways to Make Supports for Climbing Beans
How to Plant Garlic
If you order new garlic, it will arrive in bulbs; don’t separate them into cloves until you’re ready to plant. When you are, gently break the bulbs into individual cloves and plant them directly in the soil about 6-12 inches apart. Rows should be 12″ apart for easier weeding and tending and in full sun. Also, know that the more space you give garlic, the larger the final bulb will likely be. Also, each clove should have a bit of the original bulb’s base still attached. Without it, the clove won’t grow.
Plant each clove with the pointy end sticking up. This pointy end can be planted so that it’s just sticking up through the soil. However, I think it’s better to fully plant the cloves, and I tend to plant mine an inch deep in the soil here in my temperate zone 8 garden. If your garden is in a colder climate, you can plant them as deep as four inches. The deeper you plant the garlic, the better protected it will be from animals and freezing weather. Birds are hungrier in winter and notorious for pulling out garlic and onion sets, hoping they’re worms. If you have issues with birds getting at your garlic, there are humane ways to keep birds out of the garden.
After planting, keep the area where the cloves are moist, and you may see green shoots sprout in as little as a few weeks. Some garlic varieties need much longer to show any signs of green, though. Garlic shoots look delicate at first, but they’re pretty tough and can ride out wet, wind, cold, and snow. Garlic will grow in most types of soil, but it needs to be free-draining, and it won’t grow well if the soil is too wet. If you’re worried about your boggy garden during winter, you can also plant garlic in modules.
Planting Garlic in Pots or Modules
Though I tend to direct-sow my garlic into beds, I sometimes plant it in modules to overwinter someplace more protected. If you expect a lot of rain over the winter and your garden is getting waterlogged, then it might be a good idea for you, too. Planting garlic in modules is also a good way for people with very cold winter temperatures to grow softneck garlic without worrying about them suffering from freezing ground and snow. You can plant the garlic and grow them someplace that you know will be frost-free.
To grow garlic in modules, fill 2″ pots or modules with an organic multi-purpose potting mix. Plant one clove into each pot or module so that the tip is just below the surface of the potting mix. Keep moist and leave to grow through the winter in a sunny place outdoors. This could be a cold greenhouse, a cold frame, or placed on your patio or against a wall of your house outside.
Plant the small garlic plants 6-12″ apart in the garden in early spring. 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 them at the same level that they’re growing at. Firm them in afterward by pressing the soil with your fingers.
Once the garlic is planted into the ground, they’re easy to care for. I do very little for my plants while growing except to ensure that weeds are not growing in my patch. I also ensure 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,’ a fungal infection that looks like 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 dispose of them rather than put them on your compost heap.
- Plant garlic in free-draining soil with plenty of direct sunlight
- The soil doesn’t need to be rich in nitrogen at first. It’s only when the garlic begins taking off in spring that mulch is really important.
- Mulch around your plants with straw, mushroom compost, composted manure, or garden compost. It helps keep the soil underneath rich and moist as well as free of weeds.
- Hardneck garlic will form scapes in summer, up to a month before it’s time to harvest. Pick the scapes off and add them to meals. Doing this ensures a better harvest of garlic.
How to Know When to Harvest Garlic
Garlic is ready to harvest in late June and early July after about six to eight months of growing. The main sign that garlic is ready to harvest is that the bottom leaves of the plants are yellowing. Try not to water the plants too much when you spot this happening. It can dilute the flavor of the cloves after you’ve harvested them.
When the bottom third of the leaves are yellow, it’s usually time to dig them up. If in doubt, dig up one garlic plant and have a look. The head should be a good size, and the neck still strong and relatively green. You can wait until up to half of the leaves on the plants are yellow or turning yellow, but don’t wait too long. Each leaf represents a layer of paper that covers the garlic bulb. As each leaf dies and dries up, that layer of papery protection can be compromised, especially if it’s been raining. You may also see signs of the bulb splitting if you wait too long.
After you harvest, the outside of each head of garlic will be dirty, but the skin will look firm and intact. If it’s slimy-looking, you’ll need to remove that material from the garlic bulb. That slimy material could have been intact papery material and protected the garlic more if you’d harvested your garlic earlier. The bottom line is that harvesting garlic too late can mean that it won’t store as well or as long.
Drying Garlic for Storage
When you’re ready to harvest garlic, wait for a dry and sunny day and gently dig the garlic up with a garden fork. Brush as much of the soil off them as you can, remove any gunky material from the head, and leave the garlic to dry for an afternoon in the sun or a warm and airy place. Don’t wash them with water since it can cause the bulbs and their covering to spoil. Now, it’s time to cure the garlic for storage.
Take the garlic undercover and either hang it up in bunches or set it on a screen or table and let it dry out completely. Drying garlic is important since it stops potential rot in its track and gives it a longer shelf life. It doesn’t have to be a big operation, either. One thing that works for me is unceremoniously dumping garlic in a cardboard box and putting it in a dry place like the garage.
If you plan on plaiting garlic together, keep the green leaves on the garlic and allow the foliage to dry out completely. Hardneck garlic isn’t easily plaited due to its hard stem, so you can cut it off the foliage either before or after you dry it.
It can take several weeks for the garlic to dry completely. What you’re looking for is no sign of moisture and dry, crispy leaves if you’ve left the leaves on. At this point, you clean the garlic of any remaining soil. The dirty roots and skins of the garlic will clean up nicely by just rubbing with your fingers and gently pulling off any dirty pieces of papery skin. You can also trim the roots at this point if you wish.
Storing Homegrown Garlic
Now, there are a couple of ways to store garlic. Traditionally, plait (braid) garlic and store it hanging in the house. You can do this, but it’s not necessary. Garlic also stores well in baskets, bags, or trays if the container has plenty of airflow. If you choose this method, it’s easier to snip the foliage off the garlic about half an inch to a full inch above the head of garlic.
Regardless of whether you’re braiding garlic or storing it in containers, the important thing is that it’s completely dried off first and afterward kept in an airy place at room temperature and out of direct sun and light. 10-20C (50-68F) is the best temperature range to store garlic.
Cold temperatures can cause it to sprout, and dampness can encourage mold and rot. Softneck garlic can last 6-12 months if stored properly, and hardneck from 3-6 months. You can also use some of your harvested garlic cloves to grow next year’s crops. That means that once you’ve invested in garlic, you can continue growing from year to year with no added expense.
Braiding Garlic for Storage
Once you’ve harvested and dried softneck garlic, you need to keep it stored in a way that extends its life and is convenient. That’s why garlic is often plaited and hung in the kitchen. If it’s near where you’re cooking, it’s easy to take a head of garlic off when you need it. If your kitchen is generally warmer than 68F (20C), consider storing your garlic in a pantry or another room.
Plaiting, or braiding, garlic is similar to French braiding hair if you’ve ever done that. You begin with three heads of garlic and their pliable dried leaves. I tie them together for ease, then begin braiding them, adding new garlic as I work up. Watch the video above to see how to braid garlic.