Grow Garlic Like a Pro
Garlic will grow moderately well in most garden soil, but like all plants, will perform better if soil conditions are optimized. Prepare and amend soil in garlic beds with well-aged compost, manure, peat moss, and organic mulch. Till the soil deeply and uniformly. For better performance, consider building raised beds for garlic to assure drainage in unusually wet growing seasons.
Preparing and Planting
Divide garlic bulbs into individual cloves by ‘cracking’ the bulbs. Ensure there is a basal ‘footprint’ on the bottom of each clove, and for the best results, select the largest, well-shaped cloves for planting. Avoid planting cloves that are off-color, dried up or display signs of mold or insect damage.
Plant garlic cloves 2” deep, with 4” spacing in rows placed a foot apart. Plant garlic late in the fall two or three weeks before the ground freezes for the best performance.
After planting, mulch garlic beds with 3-4” of mulch, or even up to 6” of straw mulch for winter protection in extremely cold areas. Garlic tolerates frost well.
Maintenance of Garlic Beds
In spring, remove excessively heavy, or compacted mulch cover to allow the garlic to emerge. Garlic will normally emerge easily through a couple of inches of mulch, but check to see if the mulch has been compacted by snow load. When the garlic tops are 3-4” high, Mulch heavily around the plants carefully to retain moisture and suppress weeds. Keep garlic beds weed-free.
When garlic shows curled floret stems (called scapes) it is essential to remove them for the largest bulb production. Snip them off , but don’t toss them. Scapes and immature florets are excellent used raw in salads or for cooking in stir-fries. Again, keep garlic beds weed-free as much as possible.
Water garlic routinely as for onions and other vegetables. Remember that mulched areas reduce evaporation and retain water efficiently. Avoid saturating garlic beds; excessive moisture can promote mold, insect damage, and rot. If excessively wet conditions develop and persist when bulbs are mature, remove mulch to minimize damage, and if necessary, harvest garlic early.
Timing of Planting
Optimal timing for planting garlic is in the fall, which allows newly-planted garlic cloves to develop large, strong root systems, but not allow top growth. Fall planting allows garlic to build root systems and feed the bulb, without creating top growth which unnecessarily depletes and weakens the bulbs. If it is necessary to plant your garlic in the spring, plant select cloves as early as the soil can be satisfactorily worked.
Bulbils: Those little gems are garlic seeds
In addition to planting cloves, consider planting bulbils. Garlic florets allowed to develop display small bulbils which are viable garlic seeds. The tiny bulbils, if the flower heads are harvested and dried when ripe, can also planted in the fall. Bulbils will produce a new generation of garlic, which in some instances may be small, round garlic bulbs similar to an onion, or alternatively, small bulbs consisting of several smaller cloves. These, in turn, can be planted in the fall or subsequent growing season and will produce full-sized garlic bulbs consisting of larger cloves.
Acclimatize your own Garlic
Experienced garlic growers know garlic may take several growing seasons to become accustomed to soil conditions in any specific location. Planting each subsequent generation of cloves repeatedly in the same garden for several years can even result in heritage garlic that may be unique, and doing so seems to improve performance characteristics in size and growth.
Harvesting and Storing Garlic
Harvest garlic when leaves begin to turn yellow or earlier in very wet conditions. Lay the garlic bulbs in a dry, secure area to dry. Clean the bulbs but do not remove the stems or stalks. After a few days of drying, braid the garlic together and hang the braids to dry. Alternatively, leave the bulbs to dry, cut or twist the dried stalks and leaves off, and store the bulbs in mesh bags. Garlic will store well in a cold, dry environment for months.
Later in the fall, ideally about 2-3 weeks before the ground freezes in your area, it’s time to plant garlic again, so separate the cloves, –and once again, choose the largest cloves for fall planting. Happily, those remaining can be turned into gastronomical delights.