How to Grow the Best Garlic

CC BY 2.0. Jess Sloss/Flickr

Late summer and early fall are the best times to plant garlic – here are the different types, plus how to plant, grow, harvest, and store them.

Garlic may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think “mmm, fresh delicacies from the garden.” That little bit of reverie may be reserved for warm juicy tomatoes or big bold cucumbers. But seriously, garlic should be getting some love here! We grew garlic on a whim and it was a completely different animal than anything I’ve ever had from the supermarket; kind of sweet and spicy, with delicate complexities missing from the commercial garlic I was used to – and it comes complete with bragging rights.

Late summer and early fall are the perfect time to plant it. Mike McGrath, host of the public radio show You Bet Your Garden, tells Cooking Light that the best garlic is grown over the winter. “The oldest Italian gentleman I ever met said to plant your garlic the day the kids go back to school,” he says. And indeed, it needs the cold weather for the bulbs to form.

It really could not be easier – but to grow the best, you need to know what kind to plant and all the steps that follow.

Pick your type

Garlic comes in two styles of subspecies: Hardneck (below, left) and softneck (below, right).

garlic types

© O.M. | Tobik

Hardneck has a thick core and uniform cloves around it – it’s that thick core that emerges as an edible scape. Hardneck is better for growing in colder climates. It has a milder flavor than softneck, and it’s the type you are more likely to see at farmer’s markets, with its pretty colors and thick stalks.

Softneck bulbs have a strong flavor, but don’t have that thick core, and are comprised of a more random arrangement of larger and small cloves. Softneck prefers milder winters – it is the type you usually find at the supermarket because it stores better.

“If you want the ‘heirloom’ garlics from Italy and Eastern Europe with the colorful wrappers, amazing flavor, and great backstories,” says McGrath, “stick with the hardneck varieties – unless you live in a climate without winter..."

What to plant

I always want to plant anything that starts growing in my kitchen – but supermarket garlic that sends out its exploratory shoots has most likely been treated and is not a good option. Since it’s been grown on a large scale and possibly far from your home, you really can’t be sure if it’s a good choice.

Therefore, if you can get a lovely hunk of heirloom garlic from your farmers market, go for that. Since it was grown locally, it will be suitable for your climate. Likewise, you can buy seed garlic from your favorite seed catalog or online.

How to plant

Garlic wants: Light, loose soil; compost; a sunny location; mulch.

Separate the cloves (without peeling them) and plant them four inches apart, in rows that are about 18 inches apart. The flat side goes down and the pointy side should face up. They should be two inches deep (for mild climates) to six inches deep (for cold climates). Water and cover with a 6-inch layer of mulch.

In the spring

When the first shoots emerge, water them once a week through the growing season. Garlic is really only picky in that it doesn’t love competition, so weeding – or mulching – is a must. Hardneck garlic will present a scape that eventually curls back to the leaves. Cut the scapes back when they curl, and then devour them! (Sautéed in butter is a very good idea.)

garlic flowers

© Sherjaca

If you seem to have a good crop going at this point, you could also choose to let a plant or two go on to bloom – it will take energy away from the bulb, which is of course the star of the show – but garlic blossoms are a rare and delicious treat that would liven up any special meal.

To harvest

When the leaves have turned brown, in late June or early July, it’s time to liberate the prize. You can try pulling them up gently, but the stalk may separate from the bulb, so they may require some delicate work with a shovel or pitchfork. If it looks plump and papery, it’s ready and you can proceed with pulling up the rest. If it looks more anemic than a garlic bulb should, give them a few more days – but if you wait too long, the bulb can start to separate.


Public Domain/Public Domain

How to cure

Brush the loose dirt off and remove the outermost papery skin and trim the roots. Softneck varieties can be braided; hardneck bulbs can just be trimmed (or not). Seed Savers recommends hanging in a cool dark place, allowing them to get some air, for four to six weeks. You can also lay them out on newspaper or a wire rack or basket.

How to store

Under commercial conditions, softnecks will store for nine months and hardnecks will be good for six – at home it’s more like three to five months, if in a dark, dry, and well-ventilated spot. (And not in the fridge, as they will start to sprout there.) Once they begin to shrivel and sprout, they have passed their prime; though they are still edible. If you have harvested more than you think you will eat in a few months, consider one of the

• Freeze it
You can freeze chopped garlic, individual cloves, or whole bulbs. You can also puree garlic and add it to olive oil which can then be frozen – the oil doesn’t get rock hard and this magical concoction can be spooned out as desired.

• Dry it
If you have a food dehydrator, garlic loves to be dried. After, you can give it a spin in the food processor and make garlic powder, or add it to sea salt for homegrown garlic salt.

• Make garlic vinegar
Add some cloves to red or white wine vinegar; store in fridge for up to four months.

• A word on garlic oil
If you make garlic olive oil, do not store it at room temperature – that’s a recipe for botulism, and that’s not so fun. It can be kept in the freezer, as mentioned above, or kept in the fridge for four days.

And finally, save your best bulbs to plant next fall. You might never have to buy garlic again!