I can’t imagine life without garlic, nor do I think I should have to. That would just be cruel. Thankfully, it’s easy to grow, so I don’t think I’ll have to worry!
Though the vast bulk of garlic production in the world happens in China, there is one location in California, Gilroy, that is famous for growing the tasty bulbs. You always know when you’re getting close because that lovely garlic aroma wafts through the air and enters every vent in the vehicle. In fact, they even have an annual Garlic festival where they serve a lot of food (even ice cream) seasoned with…garlic. Surprise!
*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*
There are three main categories of garlic to grow: softneck, hardneck, and elephant. Your climate zone will determine which will give the best results from your garden. No matter which one you grow, all garlic will need soft soil to grow in. Slightly sandy soil is best, as denser clay soils will increase the risk of root rot due to poor water drainage, and make it harder for the bulbs to expand as they grow. Balanced nutrients will ensure proper bulb formation, and mulching will help keep soil uniformly moist and allow the bulbs to be protected during the winter months.
Softneck: this is what is predominantly grown here in California, due to its preference for mild winters. This is a good one for zones 7+. As the name implies, the greens that form as the bulbs are growing are “soft”. These are the types that are typically braided for storing after they are harvested and dried. These are also the varieties of garlic that can be stored for upwards of 7-8 months since each clove in the bulb will have its own papery skin that protects it. They seldom form the “scapes” (curly, soft stems that form their own small bulbs) that the hardneck types do, which is generally good because that ensures larger bulb formation.
Hardneck: these are the closest thing to the “original” type of garlic. It is more tolerant of colder winters, being able to be grown in zones 5+ with a heavy layer of mulch to protect them in the cold. The bulbs will form a hard, central stem, hence the name “hardneck”. The bulbs will encircle the hard stem at the base. These are also the types of garlic that will more commonly form scapes, which are very edible and tasty. If the scapes are clipped off, it will allow more energy into growing larger bulbs. If the scapes are left on, they will form little bulbils on the stem, which are also edible. This type will store for about 3-4 months.
Elephant: think big, like an elephant. Okay, big for garlic but not really elephant sized! These have much the same growing preferences as the hardneck, but grow like the softneck. They have a milder flavor than the other varieties, and roast up very nicely. They store for a shorter time, similar to the hardneck.
Regardless of variety, all garlic is grown the same. The best planting time is in early to mid fall, September through October here. You could even start as late as early November if it has been warm. Start with bulbs that have the skin still on, and yes, you can start with grocery store garlic. However, there are a lot of other varieties available, so don’t be shy about exploring. Do not remove any of the skins, just break apart the individual cloves. Larger cloves do make larger bulbs. The bulbils from scapes can also be planted, but you will need to leave them in the ground for a couple of years for them to get to a decent size. You should start to see the garlic greens popping up in about 1 week.
Put the bulbs in the ground about 1 inch deep, spaced 4-5 inches apart on all sides, with the pointy side up. Bury them and water the soil. It is best to use mulch to help keep weeds at bay, and to keep the soil uniformly moist. Be sure to keep the area weeded, but pull them by hand. Don’t use herbicides or try to rake as the bulbs are too close together and will be damaged.
Don’t overwater, just keep the soil moist in order to avoid the bulbs rotting. If winters are cold in your area, mulch the ground heavily to protect the developing bulbs. Most can handle zone 8+ without help. These will be in the ground for several months, so be sure to plan ahead if you are using the space for other plants the following spring.
Once the weather warms, the stalks will start to yellow and dry out. This could be anywhere from May to July, depending on conditions and variety. Once they have almost completely died back, stop watering the garlic and allow the soil to almost completely dry out. Harvest the garlic by digging a wide hole around each stalk, being sure not to dig too close to any of the bulbs. Dig down several inches and lift up under the bulbs. You can’t pull them out by the stalks! Ask me how I know.
Shake the dirt off the bulbs and set them someplace out of the sun and any humidity or moisture for a couple of weeks. This will allow the skins to dry completely. Once they are dry, brush off any remaining dirt, cut the stems off (into the compost they go!), and store someplace cool and dark. You could also leave the stems on the softneck bulbs and braid them. I tried it once and made a big mess. Oh well. Save some of your largest bulbs for planting the following year, or try a new variety!
- Perennial: Grown as an annual
- Deciduous: leaves die back in warmer weather, your cue to harvest
- Height: about 2 feet
- Width: about 6 inches
- Sun: full sun
- Water: regularly, do not let soil get dry but only keep it moist not wet
- Soil pH: neutral to slightly acidic
- Soil type: amend heavy clay or loose sandy soil
- Key nutrients: balanced, organic compost is best
- Planting time: best to start in fall as temperatures begin to cool