How to Plant Garlic

Garlic is a plant that many gardeners are curious about growing, but too few do. Fans of garlic tout its medical benefits, its culinary virtuosity, and its pest control effectiveness. With so much going for it, I find it mildly shocking that I’m one of the few gardeners I know who actually grows it. It’s surprising because garlic is about as easy to grow as anything in your garden and provides such wonderful rewards.

There is nothing mysterious about planting garlic, but deciding on where you’ll plant is important. Garlic is in the ground for six to nine months so you’ll need a spot that is dedicated to it, where it won’t interfere with or be impacted by other plants. I’ve planted my garlic in its own four-feet by four feet (1.2 meters) raised bed. The location should be in full sun.

My chosen spot

Garlic will grow in a variety of soils, but it will do best in well-draining, well-amended soil. If you spend extra time preparing the bed you’ll be rewarded with large, healthy bulbs. Add two to four inches of compost or aged manure on the soil surface. Work it into the soil with a tiller, spade, or garden fork. You want it to be incorporated throughout the soil to a depth of at least six inches (15 centimeters) and deeper if you can.

Working in the compost

You can also add blood meal and bone meal to the soil to provide extra nitrogen and phosphorus. If you have pets that have access to the garden you may skip those amendments. Dogs and cats love to dig through soil with fresh, wet blood meal as they search for the source of a “fresh kill”. Alfalfa meal is a good alternative. A balanced fertilizer works well too.

Garlic tends to do best in most regions when planted in the fall. The cloves are able to develop basic roots before the ground freezes and are in place to grow quickly when spring warmth returns. Garlic needs exposure to cold temperatures to sprout in spring and being in the ground during the winter provides that. One old tradition is to plant garlic on the shortest day of the year, 21 December or 21 June depending on your hemisphere. That may work for some temperate regions where the soil can still be worked, but for those of us who have frozen ground in winter it’s a little too late.

For many gardeners, fall is the ideal time to plant. As long as they’re in the ground at least three weeks before the ground begins to freeze, the cloves will have time to begin their development. It’s okay if little green shoots poke through the soil during warm periods that will occur during winter. Garlic is very durable and can handle the cold.

In warm regions, planting garlic in early spring works well. The cloves will still need cold saturation so you’ll need to store them in a cool, dry spot for three to four weeks. The temperature needs to remain below 50F degrees (10C) the entire time. Refrigerators (which should be set below 40F and 4C degrees) are a good solution.

After you’ve selected which garlic you’ll grow (see my blog, “Choosing Garlic for the Garden“) and when you’ll plant, find a good source for the bulbs. Your local nursery should have a selection of the best varieties for your location, but shop early because garlic tends to sell fast to the gardeners who have already discovered its benefits.

You want to choose symmetrical and firm bulbs. Avoid bulbs that have mold or fungus on them. There should be no soft spots when you squeeze them. Though many of the bulbs will be fully encased in the papery skin, look for the outline of the cloves; they should be full, consistent, and plump. Pass on the bulbs that already have green shoots sprouting from the top.

Labeled so I don't forget

If you buy more than one variety, be sure to label the bulbs or bag them separately. Many of the cloves will look alike and you’ll want to know which ones you’ve planted. Marking the row in the garden and planting the appropriate cloves will give you feedback as to which ones grow best and taste best after harvest.

The bulbs will store for weeks after purchase so there’s no rush to get them in the ground. It’s a good idea to buy early and spend your time preparing the bed. When it is time to plant, separate the bulbs into the individual cloves. Don’t pull apart the cloves until shortly before planting time. If they dry out it impacts their root development.

When you’re ready, crack open the bulbs by gently prying off the outer cloves with your fingers, working your way to the center. With hardneck garlic, you have the center stalk exposed with the cloves growing around it; softneck garlic won’t have the little stalk. Each clove will be attached to the basal plate at the bottom of the bulb, where the roots are. Separate all of the cloves. Some may want to stay attached to the basal plate. Try to remove it, but don’t damage the clove in the process. It’s okay if some of the old root base is attached when you plant the individual cloves.

The stalk in hardneck garlic

While all of the cloves should grow into a garlic plant, you’ll have best results by planting the larger ones. You can eat the smaller cloves or use them in pickles as I do. A typical bulb from the most popular varieties should provide you eight or ten good cloves for planting. If you crack the bulbs in a location other than right at the planting bed, label the cloves with a permanent marker or bag them separately. Again, you’ll want to know which garlic is planted where.

Cloves ready for planting

Plant the cloves four to six inches apart (15 centimeters). Consider the ultimate size of the mature bulb when determining your spacing. Some garlic grows quite large so you’ll want to plant farther apart. Some bulbs will be smaller when full-grown and can be spaced closer together. In a bed like mine, there is enough room for more than 60 cloves to be planted, allowing space around the borders for the bulbs to grow.

Cloves laid out in the bed

I like to lay out all of the cloves I plan to plant on the surface of the bed. I can adjust the spacing as needed and it provides an “assembly line” process. I simply dig a hole with the trowel, place the clove, cover it with soil, and move on to the next. In the past when I planted without laying them all out, invariably I ended up planting two cloves in the same hole or got my rows out of alignment.

The cloves should be planted three to four inches deep (8 to10 centimeters).  Three inches is fine for most cloves, but plant large cloves deeper and also plant deeper in very loose soil that will settle and compact later. Place the clove in the hole pointy side up. The flat end that was attached to the basal plate is where the roots grow from and should be on the bottom. There should be about two inches (five centimeters) of soil from the top of the clove to the surface.

A clove in the hole

Cover the bed with about four to six inches of mulch (10 to 15 centimeters). I consider this a critical step. Mulch helps moderate the soil moisture, but more importantly moderates the soil temperature. In very cold regions the freezing and thawing of the soil during winter and early spring can heave the cloves out of the soil. This frost heave can tear roots and expose the cloves to damage. Mulch also helps reduce winter kill and reduces heat stress on hot summer days. Use thicker mulch in colder areas.

Spreading straw mulch

In wet regions, the thick mulch isn’t necessary and should probably be avoided. Mulch can keep waterlogged soil from drying out and that spells doom for the cloves that can rot when exposed to excess water. A thin layer to suppress weeds is appropriate.

Straw is a good mulch. It insulates well and allows the shoots no barrier to new growth. Dried leaves or a mix of dried leaves and dried grass is good and often in abundant supply in fall. I don’t recommend hay grass; as I’ve written before, it tends to be full of seeds that sprout and turn into a blanket of weeds. Use an organic mulch that you can turn into the soil to amend it after you harvest the garlic. Pine needles are a good initial mulch but won’t decompose as quickly when turned into the soil.

The finished project

Winter snow and spring rains will compress the mulch into a soft, thinner layer that effectively manages the soil through spring and summer. It will suppress weeds and help keep soil moisture and temperature under control. If a heavy layer was used in frigid winter zones, be prepared to remove some of it in spring. A final, spring layer two to three inches thick (5-8 centimeters) is all that is needed.

Water the garlic after planting and periodically through the winter. When the soil isn’t frozen it should remain moist but not waterlogged or soggy. As I’ve said before, check the soil moisture before watering. With the mulch you will probably need to water much less than you expect. Avoid letting the soil dry out; not enough moisture will result in a smaller bulb that hasn’t reached its full potential. Garlic won’t need a lot of water in the fall and watering too much can hasten excess green growth.

Basic care for garlic is similar to other garden plants. Garlic likes minerals with its nutrients so fertilize about once a month in spring and early summer with a weak fish emulsion unless you have pet and animal pests. Compost tea, worm tea, and manure tea can be good alternatives.

I’ll follow up in the months to come with more about garlic care, diseases, and, of course, harvesting. For now, get out there and get planting.

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