There are two types of garlic; ‘hard neck’ and ‘soft neck.’ The upside to hard neck garlic is that it produces plumper cloves and has a broader variety than soft neck garlic. The downside is that it is more difficult to keep from sprouting. It does not store as well as soft neck garlic varieties.
Soft neck garlic is an ideal choice for long-term storage. Soft neck varieties are a little easier to grow but have a cluster of tiny cloves in the center that are tedious to work with. We grow both types to get the best of both worlds…flavor and storage quality.
One other important consideration when planting garlic is your climate. Hard neck garlic types root quicker and are therefore better grown in northern climates. Soft neck types do better in areas with mild winters. Yet, with proper care, both types can grow successfully in either climate.
When to Plant
Planting garlic in the fall a few weeks before the ground freezes will allow a root system to establish but not provide enough time for the plant to emerge above the surface before winter and become damaged.
For spring planting, sow bulbs when soil temperature reaches 55 F. Garlic planted in the spring will grow OK, but usually at a lesser rate than garlic that is planted in the fall, resulting in smaller bulb development.
Where to Plant
Garlic will tolerate partial shade but will perform best in full sun
Preparing The Soil
For planting garlic, you want your soil to be in the range of pH 6.0 – 7.0.
Garlic grows well in deep, well-drained soil amended with composted manure and plenty of organic matter mixed in before planting.
Planting and Growing
From your bulbs, select the large outer cloves for planting. Use the smaller cloves for immediate eating.
Separate the cloves from the bulb (this is called ‘cracking’) as close to planting time as possible; you don’t want the root nodules to dry out.
With the root end facing down and points (or tops) up, plant to the depth of 1 to 2″ below the surface for soft neck garlic and a minimum of 2″ for hard neck garlic.
Space individual cloves in rows 4- 6″apart with 1′ between rows. Cover loosely with the recommended soil level.
Garlic does not like competition with other plants so weeding is imperative for proper bulb development. When flower buds appear, snip them off with scissors; the plant will put more energy into bulb growth.
Garlic does not perform well with repeated freezing and thawing, nor does it like extreme temperatures. In colder regions, apply a thick layer of mulch during the winter and reduce the amount in the spring and summer. Mulch will protect the bulbs, prevent severe fluctuations in temperature, and help keep moisture levels even in the soil.
Chopped leaves or alfalfa hay are an excellent mulch for garlic.
Using straw is not recommended; it is a host to the wheat curl mite which invades garlic. In wet climates, using any form of mulch is not advised; it may cause the ground to hold excess water.
Garlic prefers moist, even, well drained soil throughout the growing season with no additional watering the last few weeks before harvesting.
Over-watered garlic is prone to mold and will result in bulbs that have poor keeping quality.
Companion Planting and Rotation
Garlic has an antibiotic and anti-fungal compound called allicin. When an insect bites into the clove the compound is released acting as a natural pesticide.
Growing garlic next to lettuce and cabbage is beneficial, as garlic deters aphids and other common pests.
Bad companions include beans, peas and potatoes as the garlic tends to stunt their growth
Planting garlic after any onion family crop, as they are closely related and prone to the same problems, is not advised.
When to Harvest
Timing is critical when harvesting garlic.
Watch for when the bottom two or three leaves of hard neck varieties turn brown and when the tops of soft neck varieties fall over naturally; this is a good first indicator that your garlic is ready for harvest.
Before pulling up, check to be sure the bulbs are mature. Carefully brush aside the dirt around the sides of the bulb to feel if the bulbs are large and hard.
Lift bulbs out of the ground before the outer wrappers begin to tear and the skins on the cloves deteriorate. This results in poor storage quality. Harvesting too soon will sacrifice the size of your bulbs.
It is best to use a shovel to loosen the soil around the garlic bulb; a garden fork is more likely to pierce the bulbs. Once the bulb is loosened, lift the plant out by hand.Gently tap off excess dirt.
The garlic bulb can become sunburned and loose flavor if exposed to direct sunlight. It is a good idea to cover your bulbs or place them out of the sunlight while you are harvesting.
Most diseases can generally be prevented when planting garlic by avoiding over-watering and excess standing moisture. Watering the last few weeks before harvesting will shorten the life of your bulbs.
The storing process begins with curing your garlic. If cured and stored properly, a garlic bulb will keep 6-8 months.
Hang your bulbs out of direct light in bunches of 4-6. Be sure to allow air circulation to all sides of the bulbs. If an area with good ventilation is not available, use fans.
Optimum drying time is two weeks at 80 F. You will know your garlic is cured when the skin is dry and the necks are tight.
Before storing, clean garlic by trimming off the leaves (unless braiding) and roots and remove just the outer wrappers that are soiled. The outer wrapper is what protects the garlic and helps to maintain freshness so be careful not to expose the cloves.
Leave 1″ of the center stalk on hard neck varieties to make separating the cloves easier. Select only unbruised, cloves and store in a paper or mesh bag. Your garlic will keep in a cool, dark place between 60-65 F for several months.
For your next garlic crop, save only fully matured, larger bulbs with plump cloves. Store your planting bulbs the same way you would your long-term storage garlic. (See Storage)
In warmer regions, hard neck garlic must be put through an artificial ‘cold spell’ by storing in a cool, dry location with good air circulation at 45-50 F for approximately 3 weeks before planting to induce sprouting.
Barry Brown is a 3rd generation organic gardener who is passionate about a sustainable and natural lifestyle. His personal standards for organic living far exceeds the USDA certification, which he believes is more about money than food quality and purity.