Garlic is winter hardy, grows easily and takes up very little space in a garden and grows well in containers.
An ancient bulbous vegetable, it grows from a single clove that multiplies in the ground. Most people grow it as an annual. Residents can have a perennial garlic by harvesting only the big plants and leave behind the small ones, as they will regrow every year.
Close relatives include onions, shallots and leeks. Garlic is used for flavoring many recipes and provides healthy benefits for the immune system.
Garlic is a forgiving crop. Gardeners can be optimistic about its chances for growth even in an imperfect environment. It should be planted in a warm, full sun spot in fertile, well-drained soil that doesn’t get too wet in winter and not recently used for garlic or other plants from the genus Allium.
Hardneck garlic is resistant to frost and even hard freezes if the soil is well-drained. Most varieties actually prefer a cold climate. But if there’s soggy soil, the cold winter temperatures will freeze the water causing the garlic to rot as the soil warms in the spring.
Garlic comes in several varieties. Softneck garlic varieties don’t produce a stiff central stem. Those are also easier to grow, perform better in warmer climates, produce larger bulbs and more cloves, and stores well. This is the type of garlic you’ll find at most supermarkets. It has a relatively mild flavor. Softneck garlic is the best choice for regions with mild winters, and it’s the type to grow if one wants to make garlic braids for storage.
Some softneck varieties include:
• Albigensian Wight: heavy cropping with large bulbs,
• Blanco Veneto (Venetian Wight): forms large bulbs with a strong flavor,
• Doocot: intense sweet flavor, easy to peel cloves and ideal for roasting,
• Early Purple Wight: mild, purple-tinged bulbs,
• Iberian Wight: produces large bulbs with plump cloves, good to braid,
• Solent Wight: medium sized, snow-white bulbs not too pungent good raw, stores well and
• Wight Cristo: reliable, easy to grow, produces large bulbs and stores well.
Hardneck garlic varieties produce a stiff stem that grows up through the center of the bulb. They tend to have a sharper flavor with more variation in flavor among the varieties. While less hardy and not as long-lasting, they do better in cold climates. Once harvested, the bulbs have a somewhat shorter shelf life than softneck varieties.
Some hardneck varieties include:
• Caulk White: a new variety with spicy flavor, temperatures down to -20 degrees celcius,
• Chesnok White: has attractive purple stripes, best variety for garlic bread,
• Red Duke: hard durable with strong flavor and scent and purple-skinned cloves and
• Elephant garlic bears a giant, mild-flavored bulbs for a lighter garlic flavor. However, it isn’t a “true” garlic but rather is more closely related to the leek.
Garlic may be purchased from a garden supply store, seed source or the grocery store. (While I have read that some of the grocery store variety garlic has been treated so that it won’t germinate, I have yet to ever find this to be true.)
When to plant
Plant in January, February or March, or October, November or December. Harvest in May, June, July, August and September.
Plan to plant garlic in fall about four to six weeks before the ground freezes. A raised bed works very well. Loosening the soil to a depth of at least 8-inches and working several inches of compost or well-rotted manure into the bed, along with 10-10-10 fertilizer. This herb prefers a slightly acidic to neutral soil (pH balance 6.5 to 7). Just prior to planting, break up the garlic heads into individual cloves, leaving as much of the papery covering on each clove intact as possible.
Plant cloves 7-inches apart and 3-inches deep with the pointy ends face up and 12 to 18 inches between rows. Water gently if it is dry then cover the bed with a 3- to 6-inch layer of straw. The soil will stay warm enough for them to establish roots before the ground freezes. Some green shoots may form in the fall, but this won’t harm the plants. They’ll begin growing in earnest in spring.
Plant cloves as early in spring as soil can be worked, about the same time as onion sets. Spring planted garlic should be put in the ground in the same manner as in the fall. If there is heavy clay soil, it would be better to plant garlic in spring. This type of soil tends to hold a lot of water, especially over winter, which can cause the garlic cloves to rot. Also, one can try growing garlic in mounds or use raised beds. For mounds make them 6 inches tall and 8 inches wide at the base. Plant the garlic cloves into these mounds, 6 to 8 inches apart and 3 to 4 inches deep.
Because garlic only requires a relatively small space to grow in, it can be cultivated in containers that are 18 inches deep and at least 12 inches wide. Select something with holes in the bottom to for good soil drainage. Rehabilitate an old crate lined with burlap or material pots because air flows readily through the sidewalls of the container.
If garlic was fall planted, remember to clear the straw when the weather warms. Many gardeners choose to keep mulch in place after spring to limit weed growth. Fertilize at three-week intervals during spring, and keep the soil moist. For Hardneck varieties, one may notice a round, leafless flower stem emerging from the center of the leaves about three weeks before harvest. This is the scape. Some growers cut off scapes to produce a more robust bulb. If left uncut, garlic scapes will bloom into pretty, whitish-pink pom-poms that bees love.
Water, weeds and pests
Water garlic every three to five days in spring when the bulb is forming. Don’t water it after July or the bulbs may rot. Consider harvesting your garlic early if it’s a particularly wet summer. Fall weather is usually wet enough to support healthy roots until winter sets in. But if there’s a hot, dry fall, soaking garlic once every 10 days and letting the soil dry between waterings will encourage deep root growth. If one is growing garlic in a place with relatively warm winters, water plants occasionally over the winter.
Weed garlic regularly. Mulching in the spring helps limit weed growth. In the summer when the garlic plants stop producing new leaves and begin to form bulbs, remove any remaining mulch and stop watering. The garlic will store better if the soil around the bulbs is allowed dry out.
Pests are not a problem because this herb actually repels them. Plant a border of garlic around your vegetable garden to ward off hungry deer, rabbits, cabbage worms, spider mites, aphids, carrot rust flies and Japanese beetles. Garlic is susceptible to white rot, a fungus that attacks the roots and leaves of garlic in the winter, and garlic rust, a fungal disease that attacks the leaves. To prevent rot from spreading, make sure to clean it up all infected plant residue after harvesting so it doesn’t spread throughout the garden. Do not compost infected leaves or roots. Planting garlic in a new spot each year also helps fend off fungal disease.
Gardeners will know when to harvest garlic when most of the leaves have turned brown. This usually occurs in mid-July to early August, depending on climate. At this time, dig the bulbs up, being careful not to bruise them. If the bulbs are left in the ground too long, they may separate and will not store well. Lay the garlic plants out to dry for two or three weeks in a shady area with good air circulation. Be sure to bring the garlic plants in if rain is forecasted for the area. When the roots feel brittle and dry, rub them off, along with any loose dirt. Do not get the bulbs wet or break them apart, or the plants won’t last as long.
Either tie the garlic in bunches, braid the leaves or cut the stem a few inches above the bulb. Hang the braids and bunches or store the loose bulbs on screens or slatted shelves in a cool, airy location. Residents may want to set aside some of the largest bulbs for replanting in the fall. During the winter months, check stored garlic bulbs often, and promptly use any that show signs of sprouting. Softneck garlic should stay in good condition for nine months to one year. Hardneck garlic can begin turning after four to six months. Garlic should not be refrigerated.
Garlic is a well-known companion plant. Pair garlic with beets, celery, carrots, tomatoes and cabbage to reduce damage caused by common pests of these plants. The chemicals that make garlic a powerful pest deterrent can also inhibit the growth of peas, beans and asparagus so keep it separate from these crops.
Adding this flavorful vegetable to favorite meals can help boost consumption of Vitamin C, manganese, Vitamin B6 and many more beneficial nutrients. Studies have found that properties of garlic can help lower blood pressure, reduce risk for heart disease and boost the immune system. It also contains antioxidants that may help people avoid Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
While still practicing social distancing due to COVID-19, and all Halifax County buildings remain closed to the public, anyone with gardening questions can best reach a master gardener or extension staff member by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For those without email, call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383, giving name, telephone number and nature of the call. The help desk phone is checked timely and someone will return a call, although it may be from a different telephone number.
Keep washing hands, wear a mask and consider growing some garlic this fall.