You don’t need a garden to grow garlic. The bulbs grow well when planted in wide, deep containers that are set in a nice sunny spot.
Choosing a Garlic Variety
There are tons of garlic varieties to choose from and they are divided into two basic categories: hardneck types, which have a hard central stock with a single layer of cloves around it, and softneck types, which have swirling layers of cloves and no defined neck. I prefer hardneck varieties because they produce a flower bud called a scape in late spring. Scapes have a delicious mild garlicky flavor and taste amazing in pesto. In theory, you could plant garlic purchased from the grocery store, but it is often treated to prevent it from sprouting. For the best results and a more interesting array of varieties, buy garlic that was grown locally at a farmer’s market or purchase bulbs at a nursery.
Garlic has fairly shallow roots, but it is important to make sure they have plenty of room to stretch out in the soil. Choose a pot that is at least 18 inches deep and 12 inches wide. Half barrels and wooden crates work well, but you certainly do not need to buy a container for your garlic. The large black plastic containers that trees come in are a great choice, as are contractor buckets. Whatever container you use, make sure that it has drainage holes in the bottom. Place the container in a spot that gets at least 6 hours of bright, direct sunlight each day.
Garlic will tolerate some shade but prefers full sun. While cloves sprout in gravel pits, garlic responds best in well-drained, rich, loamy soil amended with lots of organic matter. Raised beds are ideal, except in very dry regions.
To grow garlic, you plant the cloves, the sections of the bulb; each clove will produce a new bulb. The largest cloves generally yield the biggest bulbs. To get the cloves off to a strong start and protect them from fungal diseases, soak them in a jar of water containing one heaping tablespoon of baking soda and a tablespoon of liquid seaweed for a few hours before planting.
Growing garlic starts with knowing when to plant it. But planting itself is incredibly easy:
In mid-fall, plant garlic bulbs in loose, very fertile soil that’s as weed-free as possible. Insert cloves root side down about 8 inches apart in all directions (if space is limited, you can squeeze by with 6), burying the tips about two inches down. Green shoots will come up; mulch around them with straw. Hard freeze will come and kill the shoots. Draw the mulch over the whole bed.
In spring, pull the mulch back when the new shoots emerge. Give them a shot of mixed fish emulsion and liquid seaweed. Keep them weeded. Water only if the soil is dry two or more inches down, being sure to avoid pouring water into the crowns of the plants.
Place cloves in a hole or furrow with the flat or root end down and pointed end up, with each tip 2 inches beneath the soil. Set the cloves about 6 to 8 inches apart. Top the soil with 6 inches of mulch, such as straw or dried grass clippings mixed with leaves. You’ll see shoots start growing right through the mulch in four to eight weeks, depending on your weather and the variety you’ve planted. They stop growing during winter, then start again in spring. Leave the mulch in place into spring; it conserves moisture and suppresses weeds (garlic competes poorly with weeds).
Garlic needs about an inch of water each week during spring growth. If you have to augment rainfall with the garden hose, stop watering by June 1 or when the leaves begin to yellow in order to let the bulbs firm up.
By mid-June, your garlic will begin sprouting flowery tops that curl as they mature and ultimately straighten out into long spiky tendrils. These savory stalks, known as scapes, should be removed to encourage larger, more efficient bulb growth. However, before adding severed scapes to the compost pile, try incorporating their mild garlic flavor into a delicious scape pesto, scape dip, or scape soup.
Tips for cutting garlic scapes:
- No harm in taking a few to eat, but don’t wait until they’re large. Most of the scapes I see for sale are bigger than the four-to-six inches long they should be for best flavor and texture.
- No harm in cutting some for the vase, either, but don’t take them too soon. If you wait until the tops are well developed you’ll get, depending on variety, either:
- a head of tiny garlic grains that can be used whole and unpeeled in place of minced garlic (for a week or two, after which the skins toughen), or
- a clump of small round bulbs, called topsets, that can be stored all winter long and then planted close together in early spring to produce the garlic equivalent of scallions.
Start foliar-feeding your garlic every two weeks as soon as leaf growth begins in spring (typically in March) and continue until around May 15, at which point the bulbs begin to form, says Darrell Merrell, host of the “Garlic Is Life” Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Merrell uses 1 tablespoon liquid seaweed mix and 1 tablespoon fish emulsion mixed into a gallon of water.
When half to three-quarters of the leaves turn yellow-brown, typically in late June or early July (depending on the variety and the weather), it’s harvest time. Carefully dig up each bulb; do not pull, or you may break the stalk from the bulb, which can cause it to rot. Once it’s harvested, get it out of the sun as soon as possible.
Tie the garlic together in bundles of 6 to 10 bulbs (label them if you’ve grown more than one variety) and hang them to cure for about four to six weeks in a shaded, dry, and preferably drafty area.
When your garlic is thoroughly dry, trim the roots, taking care not to knock off the outer skin. Cut off the stalks about 1½ inches above the bulb if you plan to keep the garlic in bags. Recycled mesh onion bags are perfect for storage.
Let the whole plants dry in a single layer somewhere out of the sun where it’s warm but not hot. When the outer skin is papery, brush off as much dirt as possible and clip the roots. Rush this a bit if you’re braiding garlic stems; if you wait until they’re completely dry they tend to crack and break.
The finished garlic will still be on the dirty side compared to anything commercial. We leave it that way until we want to use it because further cleanup can shorten storage life. If you can’t bear the way it looks, try removing the outer layer of wrapper. You can wash the bulbs if you must and should be ok as long as they dry quickly and thoroughly, but if you ask me you’re asking for trouble by pushing it this way.
How to store garlic? The at-home ideal for storing garlic is between 55 and 70 degrees, with moderate humidity and good air circulation, in the light but out of the sun. We keep our garlic stored in baskets in the cold closet (a.k.a. the inner cold room, an insulated section of the unheated sunporch next to Bill’s office). Those less fortunate in the storage department can punt as necessary with good results as long as they avoid the refrigerator (excess cold leads to sprouting) and plastic bags (no air = high humidity = rot).