Garlic is one of the slow movers of the garden world. It’s typically planted in the fall and quietly builds a solid root structure underneath the ground all winter. Little green garlic stems popping up over the top of the soil are typically one of the first signs that spring will be here soon, but most people have to wait until June to start harvesting their garlic. Getting garlic started is pretty easy, drop the bulbs pointy side up in a little trench and forget about it until you see the green stems in the spring. However, how you care for your garlic between the time you see the stems to the time you harvest, it can have a big impact on the quality of your harvest.
There are three things we do once the stems become visible to ensure we get the biggest bulbs possible. First, we start fertilizing every week–or at least every other week. Garlic is a heavy feeder and requires a lot of nitrogen. We use emulsified fish to fertilize our bulbs. We buy 5-gallon containers of concentrated fertilizer and dilute it with water. There are a number of fertilizing options out there, but this is the one that fits best with our routine and philosophy of gardening.
Second, it’s good to apply another layer of mulch to prevent weeds from growing. If you do see weeds, take care of them right away. You want to channel all the nutrients in your soil to your garlic rather than sharing it with the weeds. We put alfalfa hay down in the fall when we first plant our bulbs, and that actually does a great job preventing weeds even in the spring. There are usually a few places that we have to patch up in the spring, but it’s a great weed blocker and a great source of organic matter that can just stay in your garden even after you have harvested your bulbs.
Finally, keep your garlic watered. The rule of thumb for garlic is one inch per week. In our part of the world, we usually get a weekly rain in the spring so we don’t worry too much about the amount–the mulch helps balance things out when we get too much rain. But in dryer climates, you will want to ensure your garlic gets consistent water. We stop watering about 1 to 3 weeks before harvesting–depending on the variety.
Hardneck garlic is ready about 3 weeks after the stems form curly scapes. Cut those scapes off and make pesto with them–it’s an amazing culinary gift. Softneck garlic doesn’t form scapes, so watch the leaves on the stems. When 3 or 4 leaves turn yellow or brown, it’s time to harvest. But leave them in the ground until then. When you see the leaves die, stop watering for a week and then harvest.
Garlic is one of the most rewarding and beautifully stored things I grow in my garden. I can usually keep softneck garlic useful until it’s time to harvest a new batch the next year. If you plant at the right time in the fall and give it a little love in the spring, it will add homegrown flavor to your meals all year long.