Tips on how to grow organic garlic including varieties, planting direct and in modules, aftercare, harvesting, and storage.
One of the easiest crops to grow in the 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 three months to a year. Garlic is truly one of the most rewarding crops you can grow. If you’re new to growing garlic, read on for tips on when to plant, how to plant, harvesting, and how to choose which garlic varieties. Though it might seem a little daunting, you’ll eventually agree with me that growing garlic is easy.
Soft Neck Garlic
Garlic comes in two main types: ‘Softneck’ and ‘Hardneck’. They’ll both form delicious garlic cloves and most gardeners can grow both types. However, there are some main differences in how to grow and care for them.
Many kitchen gardeners grow softneck varieties since they’re easy to grow in temperate climes, produce more cloves, and store very well. They’re also don’t form garlic scapes, which need to be pruned off. Another bonus is that you can plant it outdoors in either autumn or spring since it tends not to need a period of cold 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.
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 cardboard boxes, and someplace dry and room temperature is the best environment to keep them. Softneck garlic’s dried necks are soft (imagine that!) and can easily be plaited. The garlic you see in the supermarket or hanging in ornamental braids is almost always softneck. Here are some popular varieties to grow:
Hard Neck Garlic
Hardneck varieties literally have a hard neck. This neck sprouts a ‘garlic scape’ that should be trimmed off when spotted in summer. Leaving it on can weaken the plant and reduce the size of your bulbs. Fortunately, it’s tasty and can be used in cooking. If you leave this scape growing, it will eventually transform into bulbils, tiny edible garlic cloves.
Although less commonly grown by the average British kitchen gardener, hardneck varieties are said to have a more complex flavor and are considered more gourmet. They’re also much more cold-hardy than softneck so better suited for those growing garlic in cold climates. That’s why you’ll see hardneck garlic being so popular in places with cooler winter temperatures, such as Canada and parts of the USA. They also need 4-6 weeks of cold temperatures (under 5⁰C (40⁰F) to kick start a bulb into forming. Without that cold, you won’t get much of a harvest. Here are some popular varieties of hardneck garlic:
The best time to plant garlic is Autumn
Garlic needs around six to eight months to mature and that time is up around the end of June to July. That means that if you plant your garlic in early 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, regardless of whether it’s said to be ‘spring-planting’ or not.
The best time to plant garlic is from late September to late November. Basically a month before your first hard frost. Even so, the traditional time for planting garlic here in Britain is the Winter Solstice. That’s the shortest day of the year usually falling on December 21st. I’ve planted my garlic on that day before and think that October to November is a better time, really. Hardneck garlic shoots up and you’ll see leaves before Christmas if you get them in that time. Softneck takes its time for me and I don’t expect growth from them until January, regardless of if they went in October, November, or December.
- 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 directly 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 sticking up through the soil.
- 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.
- Green shoots will sprout in as little as a few weeks. They’re tough and can ride out wet, wind, cold, and snow.
- If you have very cold winters, you could theoretically grow softneck garlic in modules in a greenhouse. Plant them outside in spring.
Garlic will begin to grow again in early Spring
I sometimes will plant my own garlic in modules and then plant them in the garden in March. 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 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 mushroom compost, composted manure, or garden compost
- A top dressing helps keep the soil underneath rich and moist as well as free of weeds.
- 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 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 dispose of 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 after a day of drying in the sun, take them in to fully dry in the garage. Here are 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 can 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.
- 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.
Once your softneck garlic is fully dried, you can plait it if you wish. If you’ve french-braided hair before it will be pretty easy. It’s better seen than described so have a watch of my video below showing how to braid garlic. Whether you braid it or not, store garlic at room temperature or slightly cooler and out of direct sunlight. Cold temperatures will 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.
If you enjoyed this piece and would like more tips on how to grow your own food, head over here for ideas.