Archeological evidence suggests that garlic is one of the oldest crops in the world. It’s cultivation likely began around 5,000 years ago. References to garlic are found in ancient texts from India, Egypt, and China, and garlic bulbs have even been found in Egyptian tombs. Back then, garlic was probably used more as medicine and a nutritional supplement than as the flavoring agent and spice we consider it to be today. Recent research into allicin, the chemical that gives garlic its signature “garlickiness,” shows that it has antibacterial and antifungal properties, so it looks like our ancestors were onto something. Regardless of whether you are using it as a medicine, a delicious spice to round out homegrown meals, or both, garlic is a wonderful addition to any garden.
Types of Garlic There are two categories of garlic which are both subspecies of Allium sativum. Colloquially they are referred to as “hardneck” and “softneck” garlic.
Softneck garlic is what most people are familiar with as it is the type most commonly found in the supermarket. The reason this is the typical commercially produced garlic is because it has a longer shelf-life and larger cloves than hardneck garlic. The name “softneck” refers to the lack of a woody stem protruding from the garlic head that is present in the hardneck varieties. This makes the stalk above the garlic head more malleable and easier to braid. Softneck garlic is less cold-hardy and does not require a long cold period to produce a bulb so it is ideal for growers in warmer planting zones.
Hardneck garlic is less common in commercial production due to its relatively shorter shelf life, but because it is much more cold-hardy than softneck garlic, it is well-suited to Northern gardens. In fact, hardneck varieties require about two months of cold weather to produce a full bulb the following summer. Unlike the softneck varieties, hardneck garlic has a woody stem running all the way up the stalk. This stalk is the remnant of the reproductive part of the plant called the “garlic scape” which can be harvested in the spring and has a delicious mild garlic flavor.
There is a third type of “garlic” commonly referred to as elephant garlic, which is actually a type of leek (Allium ampeloprasum) but strongly resembles garlic in appearance. It produces giant cloves that have a very mild garlicky flavor. This plant is less cold-hardy than true garlic so it will do best in warmer planting zones.
Regardless of which type of garlic you are growing, it’s best to start with certified seed garlic cloves which you can buy from most seed companies. Garlic bulbs from the grocery store are often sprayed with growth inhibitors that prevent them from sprouting on the shelf. Even organic garlic from the grocery store was likely grown hundreds of miles away and is therefore probably not suited to your planting zone. Once you grow your first crop, you can use that garlic to plant going forward as long as the cloves appear healthy.
How to Plant Garlic Garlic prefers well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter so a raised bed with a good amount of compost worked into the soil is the ideal growing environment. Because garlic is susceptible to fungal diseases and root rot, heavy clay soils that hold a lot of moisture are not ideal.
Although garlic is harvested in mid-summer, it is planted the prior fall after the first frost. Keep this in mind when deciding where to plant your garlic because you probably don’t want to occupy your prime garden real estate with garlic for eight months out of the year. To maximize the output of our garden beds, we usually plant potatoes or peppers immediately after harvesting our garlic and they are ready to harvest just before the cold weather comes in.
To plant your garlic, simply separate the cloves from the head and choose the biggest, healthiest looking ones to grow. Make sure to leave the papery husk on each clove as it will protect them from disease while they get established. You want to push your garlic clove about 3 inches into the soil with the pointy side facing up. Garlic does not like to be crowded so you should space each clove at least 6 inches apart. It also helps to heavily mulch the garlic beds to prevent weed pressure from competing with them.
The garlic will appear to be doing very little over the winter, but it’s actually establishing its roots beneath the soil and preparing to emerge in the spring. When the ground begins to warm the garlic will push a shoot up through the soil and produce a stalk. As I mentioned above, if you are growing a hardneck variety you will get a delicious bonus harvest of garlic scapes in the spring. If left alone, the garlic scape will eventually produce a flower, but it’s important to remove these early to prevent the plant from focusing energy on the production of the scape instead of the bulbs.
When to Harvest Garlic About eight months after planting, the leaves of your garlic will begin yellowing and drying out starting from the base of the stalk up. The common rule of thumb is when three to four of the leaves are dry and brown it’s time to pull your garlic.
Each dry leaf represents one layer of skin around your garlic head and three to four is the perfect amount to cure your mature garlic. If your plants begin to yellow and dry out long before the bulbs are formed and mature, you are likely dealing with a fungal problem and need to find a more well-drained planting site for next year.
How to Store Garlic Now that your fully mature garlic is up and out of the ground, you want to knock off any large clumps of soil that came up with the roots, but otherwise leave it as is. Don’t wash the soil off of your garlic or attempt to brush it off at this point because you might end up damaging the tender skins. The final step is to cure your garlic in a dark, well-ventilated area like a basement or closet with a fan circulating the air. The garlic bulbs should be exposed to the air on all sides so either lay them in a single layer on a wire rack or braid their stalks and hang them up.
The curing process takes about three to four weeks, after which you can brush off the remaining soil and store them for use in the kitchen. In ideal conditions, hardneck garlic can store for about six months and softneck garlic can store for nine months, but in the average kitchen they will likely not last that long. For long-term storage, you can dehydrate or pickle your garlic cloves to enjoy all winter. Just be sure to put aside enough cloves to plant for next year’s crop.