Garlic is one of my absolute favorite crops. Not only is it an incredible culinary and medicinal plant, but it’s also easy to grow, hardy, and stores well for many months. When I have ample garden bed space, I like to grow enough garlic to supply my family’s kitchen and livestock needs for an entire year. This post will walk you through the basics of growing, harvesting, and storing garlic, and has dozens of links for additional reading!
How to Grow Great Garlic
In my zone 5b garden, I think of garlic as a “school year” crop – I plant it in the fall, and harvest it when school’s out for the summer. I like to plant a mixture of two types of garlic: Hardneck and Softneck. Just like its name suggests, Softneck garlic has a more flexible stalk, allowing it to be braided for storage. It typically keeps longer, but grows better in more mild winter conditions. Hardneck garlic is particularly hardy, and many say more flavorful. It produces scapes, or flower stalks, in the spring time, which are removed from the plant to produce larger bulbs. When I was first learning to plant garden, my mentor referred to Hardneck garlic as “Easy Peel,” as the cloves are quite easy to unwrap.
Garlic bulbs are grown from cloves. Each clove will produce one new garlic plant/bulb. You can save the biggest and best of your cloves from the previous year, or purchase “seed” garlic for planting. In the fall, usually around late September or early October, I prepare a few beds by lighting digging in a bit of compost. I space each garlic clove about 6 inches apart, and push them into the soil about 4 inches deep. Then I lightly cover the entire bed with loose straw. The garlic will sprout and grow a few inches tall, and will overwinter at that height.
How to Plant Garlic
Planting Garlic in the Fall Garden
In the Garden …. Garlic
How to Plant Garlic
Demystifying Hardneck and Softneck Garlic
How to Grow Garlic
How to Plant and Grow Garlic
Garlic Planting Time
Mulching Garlic Plants
In the spring, the overwintered garlic will once again resume growing rapidly. In mid-spring, I like to mulch my entire garlic bed with either compost, or bedding material from the barn. I’m not talking about fresh manure, but instead the goopy, pee-laden straw that gets mucked out of the barn – it makes fantastic mulch! I simply tuck the mulch around each garlic plant. This gives it a fantastic boost of fertility.
Hardneck garlic will produce scapes in the spring. Scapes are the curled, unopened flowers of the garlic. It is important to remove them so the plant can focus on building larger bulbs, and not on flowering. Luckily, the scapes are completely edible and taste delicious.
The garlic harvest is one of my favorites. Hidden below the soil is a garlic bulb, but until you dig it up, you don’t know exactly how big, or how beautiful it will be! I harvest garlic when the bottom 2-3 leaves have turned brown, and the plant has begun to look a bit “spent.” I realize that’s a rather subjective description, but you can usually tell when a garlic plant has finished growing and is ready to harvest.
I use a digging fork to gently loosen the soil around each bulb, and pull the entire plant up by the stalk. I gently shake off excess dirt, being careful not to damage or bruise the bulb. I then set the garlic in an airy, sunny spot for a day, and then move it into a more shady, covered, and dry spot to cure for about a week. After the garlic has cured, I gently remove any remaining dirt, trimming the roots to 1/2″ length. Hardneck garlic can be simply trimmed above the bulb and stored in a basket, while Softneck garlic is beautiful when braided (if you know how to French braid hair, it’s exactly the same idea!).
When we lived in Oregon, I stored my garlic year-round under a covered north-facing porch eave. When I needed more garlic, I’d grab a braid or two and bring them into the house to hang in the kitchen. Here in NE Missouri, the cold winters mean that garlic must be stored indoors. Softneck garlic is stored in long braids around the house, and Hardneck garlic is kept in a basket, and, since it doesn’t store as well, used first.
While garlic features prominently in many of my food preservation projects, including pickles, canned salsa, and zacusca, I have never preserved it on its own. However, garlic can be made into a powder for kitchen use, and also ferments well, and you can learn more from one of these great posts:
DIY Garlic Powder
Homemade Garlic Powder
Making Fermented Garlic
Ah, the most wonderful part – using and enjoying garlic! I love the flavor of garlic; along with an onion, it’s my go-to base for almost every recipe. We also use garlic medicinally – I particularly enjoy making garlic honey lemonade when I’m sick. Garlic is also a great supplement for livestock. When we raised Alpine dairy goats, we gave each goat one clove of garlic per milking. I’m still trying to convince Creme Brûlée that garlic is a treat worth eating!
What is your favorite way to use garlic? What other questions do you have about this amazing crop?
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