Grow Your Own Garlic!

Well that just about does it for this year's planting season.  Hopefully you had the foresight to plant Fall and Winter vegetables in August and September.  Our Fall vegetables are just coming into their prime as we settle in for the rainy season.  Arugula, Kale, Lettuce, Broccoli, Cabbage, Radicchio, Carrots, Turnips--  These are just a few of the veggies you can harvest from your home garden in the months ahead. 

But if you have missed the boat on Fall and Winter vegetables, or if you are just looking to add something fun and unique to your Winter garden, listen upThere is still one vegetable that you can plant in the cold and rain of October:  Garlic, of course!!!

If you have never grown garlic before, your time has come!  Garlic is easy to plant, easy to grow, fun to harvest, and stores for months.  So take a trip to your favorite nursery and pick up some garlic for planting today. 

Here's how to grow your own garlic...

A Little Background

Garlic is in the Allium family (with onions, leeks, and shallots) and it sort of runs on its own schedule.  It is planted in the Fall because it requires the cold temperatures of Winter to break dormancy triggering it to grow into a bulb in the Spring.

Garlic is grown not from seeds or from starts, but grown from the whole cloves from a head of garlic.  So yes, its as simple as taking a clove of garlic and sticking it in the ground.  Well... almost.  While any garlic clove from the store can be planted in your garden, it is wise to try and obtain high quality "seed garlic" from a local nursery or online retailer.  Though more expensive, purchasing seed garlic will assure a quality crop that is disease free.  Also remember to select the largest bulbs possible as larger cloves generally produce larger bulbs.

Mulching with straw on top of your garlic planting will help insulate soil from cold air temperatures and encourage deeper root growth leading to larger garlic bulbs.

"Softneck" vs. "Hardneck" Garlic

If you have only ever bought garlic from the grocery store, you have almost certainly been eating "softneck" garlic for your entire life.  Softneck garlic lacks a rigid central stock and forms a head with many cloves of different sizes.  Softneck garlic has a milder flavor and stores very well (up to 9 months).  Long shelf life and mild flavor have made softnecks the obvious choice for commercial growers for years.

"Hardneck" garlic has large regular cloves that are organized around a rigid central stock.  Hardneck varieties tend to have more complex and spicier flavor and don't store as long as softnecks (up to about 6 months).  Though they don't store as long, I find hardneck varieties to be more interesting to grow and eat.  Because they don't have smaller cloves, they are also much easier to use in the kitchen!

 Softneck garlic has irregular cloves, lacks a rigid central stock, milder flavor and stores longest (up to 9 months!)

Softneck garlic has irregular cloves, lacks a rigid central stock, milder flavor and stores longest (up to 9 months!)

 Hardneck garlic has large regular cloves organized around a rigid central stock.  Hardnecks are spicier and don't store as long as softnecks (3-6 months).

Hardneck garlic has large regular cloves organized around a rigid central stock.  Hardnecks are spicier and don't store as long as softnecks (3-6 months).

When and How to Plant Garlic

In the Pacific Northwest, garlic should be planted between October 1st and October 15th.  Garlic that is planted too early in the year will put on too much top growth heading into the coldest months where a hard frost can be damaging.  Garlic that is planted too late in the Fall will not be able to establish good root growth and the result will be smaller bulbs in the Spring and Summer.

Prepare garden soil by adding some high quality compost and tilling into the top 6-8".  Garlic does not like growing in heavy or compacted soil which causes small and stunted bulbs.  Once soil is prepared for planting, carefully break apart the bulbs into their respective cloves.  Cloves of hardneck varieties will be quite similar in size, however cloves from softnecks will vary greatly.  For softnecks, separate the medium and large cloves from the smallest cloves.

Garlic does poorly in compacted soil.  If necessary, prepare by working compost into the top 6" of soil before planting

Don't forget to label your rows before planting like we did!  Once you have planted your cloves it can be easy to forget where you planted them.  Prioritize planting the largest cloves in your garden.  Plant cloves 4-6" apart in rows 6-12" apart.  Plant each clove double it's depth (approximately 1-2" deep).  Make sure that the root end (the blunt side) of each clove is pointing down in the soil.

 Separate cloves from bulbs and create a furrow about 2-3" deep to plant into.

Separate cloves from bulbs and create a furrow about 2-3" deep to plant into.

Plant largest cloves for larger heads.  Space cloves minimum 6" apart root end down

Because they won't ever grow to a large bulb, I like to plant the smaller leftover cloves with 2-3" spacing in rows 6" apart to grow for "green garlic."  Green garlic is garlic that is harvested in the Spring at an immature stage before the cloves have divided and formed a head.  Green garlic is mild in flavor and delicious!  At this stage the stem is succulent and soft and can be chopped up along with the immature head and used just like garlic.

Caring for your Garlic

Now that your garlic is planted, most of the work is done!  In our climate, your garlic likely won't need to be watered for months unless we have an unseasonably dry stretch.  Garlic should be kept well weeded throughout its life, as weeds can crowd out young shoots and inhibit growth of the bulb in Spring. 

If you have planted hardneck garlic, in the Spring each plant will send up shoots called "scapes."  Once these scapes wrap around themselves (see photo) they are ready to be harvested and eaten!  Simply grasp tightly and pull them until they snap at their base.  They can be roasted like asparagus or chopped and sauteed with other vegetables.  Yummmm.

Garlic "scapes" are a delicious bonus to growing hardneck varieties.  In the spring, harvest scapes once they loop upon themselves.

Starting in late May or June you may notice the lowest leaves beginning to yellow and die back.  Believe it or not, this is a good thing, and a sign that your garlic is reaching full size and is getting ready to cure.  This also means that if you have been irrigating, it is time to stop watering your garlic.  For the last few weeks of it's life in the ground, garlic should be left alone.  This is the time when the plant forms the dry protective papering that encloses each clove and the bulb and protects it for long term storage in your pantry!

Harvesting, Curing, and Storing your Garlic

Once all of the leaves have completely dried back and the plant looks, well... dead, it is likely time to harvest your garlic.  Get as much soil off of the roots as possible to reduce moisture.  At this point much of the moisture has left the plant, but the final curing process is important in finishing the job and keeping your garlic from molding.  Hang garlic in a warm, dry location with good ventilation or lay out on screens.  Too much exposure to light can cause premature sprouting so a dark location is ideal.  An easy method is simply to store garlic in a warm, dry location in paper grocery bags. 

After 2-3 weeks your garlic should be cured and ready for long term storage.  Best conditions for long term storage are cool, dry and dark (i.e. a dry basement).  Depending on what type of garlic you have grown, your cured bulbs should last from 3-9 months.  And if you have enjoyed this process, make sure to save the very largest and best bulbs for planting in October!!!

...And that's the circle of garlic

So go plant that garlic!!!