How to Grow Garlic, with Harvesting and Storage tips and the story of the great garlic scape experiment.

As far as I’m concerned, garlic gets the blue ribbon for growing your own. It’s absurdly easy to plant and care for; it tastes great; it looks beautiful and it takes up so little ground that even those with very small gardens can raise enough to be self-sufficient in garlic for a good part of the year.

All you have to do is choose the right varieties; plant at the right time, in the right soil; then harvest when just right and store correctly.

Home grown garlic, fresh out of the ground

Home grown garlic, fresh out of the ground

CHOOSING VARIETIES

If you look in a specialist catalog like the one at Gourmet Garlic Gardens, you’ll find dozens of choices. The folks at Filaree Farm, who offer a hundred, divide them into 7 groups: Rocambole, Purple Stripe, Porcelain, Artichoke, Silverskin, Asiatic Turban and Creole. Gourmet GG says it’s 10 groups because they divide Asiatic from Turban and add Marbled Purple Stripe and Glazed Purple Ptripe to the list.

You see where this is going – and you can see a lot more on either of those websites, but for general purposes the most important difference is the one between softneck and hardneck.

Softnecks are so called because the whole green plant dies down to pliancy, leaving nothing but the bulb and flexible stems that are easy to braid. Hardnecks have a stiff stem in the center that terminates in a beautiful flower – or cluster of little bulbs – then dries to a rigid stick that makes braiding impossible.

Softnecks, the standard garlics of commerce, are the easiest to grow in regions where the weather is mild. They keep longer than hardnecks, but they are less hardy and more prone to make small, very strong-flavored cloves. Hardnecks do best where there is a real winter and are more vulnerable to splitting  – or simply refusing to produce – when grown in warm climates.

Gardeners in most of the US can try some of both. Southerners should probably stick to softnecks and northerners (that’s us) to the hard ones, but microclimates matter. Specialty sellers will suggest best bets based on your climate and tastes and of course it’s wise to get some seed stock from your local  farmers’ market – whatever it is, it’s growing where you are.

GARLIC PLANTING AND CARE

Plant in mid fall, (@ October 10 in the Hudson Valley) in loose, very fertile soil that’s as weed free as possible. Insert cloves root side down about 8 inches apart in all directions (if space is limited, you can squeeze by with 6)burying the tips about 2 inches down. Green shoots will come up; mulch around them with straw. Hard freeze will come and kill the shoots. Draw the mulch over the whole bed.

In spring, pull the mulch back when the new shoots emerge. Give them a shot of mixed fish emulsion and liquid seaweed. Keep them weeded. Water only if the soil is dry 2 or more inches down, being sure to avoid pouring water into the crowns of the plants.

INTERLUDE: OUR SCAPE EXPERIMENT

Garlic scapes at the edge of the Maine garden

Garlic scapes at the edge of the Maine garden

Both of us spent most of our gardening lives knowing it was important to cut off the flowering scapes of hardneck garlic so they wouldn’t draw energy that should be spent making bulbs. Then I read a story about some garlic growing guru on Long Island who said it didn’t matter a whit and he never bothered.

Well, it isn’t really much bother; tender young scapes are delicious and older ones that have made pretty curls look wonderful in the vase. But still…

So we set up an experiment, easy because we always plant a long narrow raised bed with two parallel rows. We allotted 30 spaces in each row and planted the same variety – our saved household special – in both of them.

When scapes were about half grown, no longer super tender but not yet curly and tough, we cut them from one row of the plants.

At harvest, after trimming,

The cut row yielded: 15 jumbo heads, 14 medium, 1 small, with 9 cracked and 1 half-rotted.

The uncut row yielded 12 jumbo, 16 medium and 2 small, with 3 that were cracked and 1 that was half-cracked.

So, very close to a tie except for one thing: we got 5 pounds out of the cut row, 6.5 pounds out of the one we left alone.

Scape cutting tips:

1. No harm in taking a few to eat, but don’t wait until they’re large. Most of the scapes I see for sale are bigger than the 4 to 6 inches long they should be for best flavor and texture.

2. No harm in cutting some for the vase, either, but don’t take them too soon. If you wait until the tops are well developed you’ll get, depending on variety, either:

a head of tiny garlic grains that can be used whole and unpeeled in place of minced garlic (for a week or two, after which the skins toughen), or

a clump of small round bulbs, called topsets, that can be stored all winter long and then planted close together in early spring to produce the garlic equivalent of scallions.

Topsets from the ‘08 crop, photographed in May ‘09

Topsets from the ‘08 crop, photographed in May ‘09

HARVESTING AND CURING

Varieties are divided into early, midseason and late, but what that means depends not only on your climate zone but also on your climate in the growing year. Heat speeds ‘em up, cold slows ‘em down, and although the harvest window is wide if you plan to eat the garlic fresh, it’s narrow if you want to ensure maximum storage life.

The bulbs are ready when most of the lower leaves have browned. The upper ones will still be green. If you’ve ever grown onions, it’s easy to assume garlic is the same and you should wait until all the leaves have fallen over. Bad idea. By the time all the leaves are dead the bulbs will have split; they won’t have the leaf sheathes they need to form wrappers and it’s likely fungus disease will have found a way in.

Garlic plants at optimum harvest stage

Garlic plants at optimum harvest stage

“Lift the bulbs” is usually used to describe moving things like daffodils, but it’s also a good way to think about getting garlic out of the ground. Those heads are more delicate than they seem and any cut or bruise will shorten storage life.

Try to choose an overcast day when the soil is dry. Loosen the soil with a digging fork, inserting it well away from the heads, then lift them out of the row and place them in a flat carrier.

Let the whole plants dry in a single layer somewhere out of the sun where it’s warm but not hot. When the outer skin is papery, brush off as much dirt as possible and clip the roots. Rush this a bit if you’re braiding stems; if you wait until they’re completely dry they tend to crack and break.

Garlic curing in the warm dry barn

Garlic curing in the warm dry barn

The finished garlic will still be on the dirty side compared to anything commercial. We leave it that way until we want to use it because further cleanup can shorten storage life. If you can’t bear the way it looks, try removing the outer layer of wrapper. You can wash the bulbs if you must and should be ok as long as they dry quickly and thoroughly, but if you ask me you’re asking for trouble by pushing it this way.

STORING GARLIC

The at-home ideal is between 55 and 70 degrees, with moderate humidity and good air circulation, in the light but out of the sun. We keep ours in baskets in the cold closet, aka inner cold room, an insulated section of the unheated sunporch next to Bill’s office. Those less fortunate in the storage department can punt as necessary with good results as long as they avoid the refrigerator (excess cold leads to sprouting) and plastic bags (no air = high humidity = rot).

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23 Comments »

  • Sally Said,

    Thank you – great advice and just what I need for my first garlic harvest!

  • Sally Said,

    One question – should I store it differently if I want to plant some in October from my newly harvested garlic?

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Sally, welcome to the blog — and the grand company of garlic growers!

    Storage is the same regardless of when you plan to use the garlic – in pesto in August, for planting in October or roasted with potatoes in the dead of winter.

    There are just 2 rules to keep in mind:

    1. Eat the bulbs that look like they won’t store well first. There are always a few that split or have one not-good looking clove or otherwise clearly signal they’re less than perfectly sound.

    2. Plant only the very best. It’s tempting to set aside smaller or damaged bulbs as better for planting than eating, but that’s what makes planting stock “run out.” If you plant your very best each year, your private garlic variety will improve over time.

  • lynne Said,

    Hi, I Have a question. I planted many cloves of garlic in the spring. they are coming along fine But have not grown into new cloves yet and fall is upon us here in Nova Scotia.. Can I leave them in the soil over the winter? Do I follow the mulching you have in this article.. Tx for the advise.. Lynne

  • Leslie Said,

    Hi Lynne,

    Good question!

    You can leave them in the soil, mulched as described, and see what you get- they’ll almost certainly survive and divide. But they’re likely to form small bulbs with small cloves, so if I were you I’d plant some big new cloves now, just for insurance.

  • Mike Said,

    Hi. I’m in Australia and grow hardneck garlic. This year I left all the flower stalks on all my plants (it’s harvest time now and I live in a subtropical area).
    The crop is good but I think the bulb size is smaller than if I cut the scapes off. I have found that if the plants don’t send up scapes I only get big onions and the plants don’t clove.
    My main question is this. When I pull the plants there are lots of hard, little nuts attached to the cloves and about the roots. I have planted these in the past to get little onions but I have not been able to find any discussion about propagating new plants from these little nuts and when they like to be planted?

  • Stacie Said,

    I have some cloves that I want to plant in the fall. How can I keep them until then..its now March

    • Leslie Said,

      Welcome, Stacie –

      I’m afraid I don’t know any way to keep garlic from sprouting between now and fall planting time. Don’t know where you are, how cold, wet, etc. it is there, but your best bet is to plant them as soon as the ground can be worked, in well-drained soil so they don’t rot. They don’t mind cold; no worries about light freezes, but if it looks like it will go below 28 or so a loose temporary covering of straw mulch would be a good idea. By late summer, they will have formed small bulbs. Harvest those bulbs as described in the post, then save out the largest cloves and plant those.

  • SANJAY Said,

    i wish to store pealed garlic so plz tell me how to pealed garlic.

  • Ardy Said,

    Hi, Just found your wonderfully informative site, and just today had been considering a try with garlic. Aside from local, (mid coast Maine) farmers to purchase the garlic seeds from, what are the odds of success planting cloves purchased from the grocery store?

    Welcome, Ardy, to the blog and to garlic growing. The odds of success in Maine with supermarket garlic are small, because supermarkets sell the wrong kind of garlic: standard commercial garlic is softneck garlic, which doesn’t grow well in cold climates. You’ll get much better results with hardneck garlic, whether bought locally or mail-order, and if you get it from local producers it has the advantage of being locally adapted. When in doubt, check the bulb itself; hardneck has a stiff stem right in the center. Good luck! LL

  • We have grown garlic every year for a long time and love it!! We store it in the garage, but every year around the end of May until the we pick the upcoming harvest, the garlic starts getting soft and begins to sprout and become quite pungent. We live in Cleveland, OH. Any suggestions?

  • Hi, I have had garlic in my garden but with no harvesting. This spring, it came up with 2 very large stalks. Each is about an inch and a half thick and as of today I noticed the little bulbs of flowers on top. They look like seeds. The plants are 4 ft. tall. We have had much rain lately so I don’t for certain when to harvest.

  • Great post, and interesting experiment! Who knew? Oh, and that photo of the three parallel scapes is a contest-winner, for sure!

  • Balakrishnan Said,

    Hi thanks for providing valuable information about garlic. I have a doubt, I am unaware of how to transit 5 tons of garlic which will take 4 days to reach my place from the place it is harvested. what storage techniques i should follow, if the time taken to purchase and time taken to distribute is on the following breakup

    1)Procurement and storage for Transit ( 3 days)- Place A
    2)Transit(4 days)
    3)Place B-reception, storage (3 days)- from here distribution to retails start(again transit of 3 days)

    all this days are of maximum possibilities how ever it can be minimized to 7 days in total to reach retail if proper planning is done.

    Please help me in this. Thanks a lot in advance.

  • Selen Said,

    How is garlic storing at professionally ?

  • Helen Said,

    Can I plant the little garlic bulbs/nuts that are attached to the man garlic bulb next season and expect to get garlic?

    Welcome Helen,

    and congratulations on having a healthy garlic crop! The little bulbs/nuts are called offsets. They will produce garlic, but the first year it will be a single bulb, more like a baby onion than a head of garlic. You can eat that. Or you can plant it and with luck get a regular bulb of garlic in the second year.
    LL

  • Kailash Said,

    hello Dear, I am a trader of garlic. can u tell me that how i store garlic for long time (6 to 8 Month)

    Commercial storage is something I know very little about, Kailash. If I were you I’d write to the folks at Filaree farm (linked in the post). Being commercial traders themselves they may be able to advise you.

  • Rick Said,

    Hi, I am growing jumbo garlic, which I planted last fall, and the tops are finally starting to dry up. I harvested one of the bulbs and found that it hadn’t separated into individual cloves yet. Should I be leaving these in the ground for two growing seasons instead of just one, as would be the case for regular garlic? Sure would appreciate your advice.

    Hi Rick,

    If by “jumbo garlic” you mean “elephant garlic”, which is actually a kind of leek, having a fall-planted clove make only a single round isn’t all that uncommon, especially if the clove was small or planted shallowly (elephant garlic should be planted more deeply than the regular kind: 3 or 4 inches is usually recommended).
    It’s likely the other plants have developed normally – try digging up a few from various parts of the row. But if they are all coming up single, no big problem. You can either just eat the singles ( YUM!) or save them and replant this fall, about a foot apart, for multi-clove bulbs next year. It’s better to harvest and replant than just leave them in the ground. Hope this helps.

  • Esty Said,

    Hi Leslie,

    What an interesting and informative article. I was wondering if you knew how best to store garlic that is still attached to the flower. From bulb to flower they measure about 4 foot 8 inches and I’d like to give them as a gift -whole. Do you think I can keep them whole and if yes, how best to store. Otherwise I can cut off the flower, and put in water..

    Thank you for your time,
    Esty

    Hi Esty,

    Neat idea! And if the plants are over 4 feet tall it sounds as though they’ve very healthy. Keeping them green and fresh-looking for several days should be no problem; just keep the roots below the bulb damp (not wet). Standing the bulbs in a narrow containers and packing them in with wet newspaper would work – or anything like that. Your biggest problem is going to be to keep the stems from breaking. Best to loosely tie them in several places to a heavy stake or something else that will keep them from bending. Keep the bundle out of sum – and of the wind, so it won’t fall over.

    Good luck. The giftee should be very pleased.

  • have you heard of Lenny Levine he has been growing garlic in Nova Scotia since the 70’s he is very particular about his crop and it is all done by hand , we recently helped him harvest 7800 head. it is a totally organic crop free of any dieease at all. most of the seed stock in this province came from his farm.

    Hi there Peter, and thanks for the info. Never heard of Lenny Levine (a fellow LL!) but look forward to looking him up.

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