Is garlic a forever item on your grocery list? Me too. At least, it used to be, before I started planting and growing my own garlic. Growing garlic is one of those things that sounds hard and mysterious but is actually totally easy and low-key. And the garlic you harvest one year can be saved to plant the next year, so it’s a cost-saving proposition, too. If you’re a garlic lover, you should definitely try planting and growing your own, and you’ll virtually never need to buy garlic again. Here’s how to do it.
Choosing Garlic Varieties
Garlic is garlic, right? Nope. There are several different types and varieties of each type. This year, I ordered a mix of heirloom garlic varieties — hardneck, softneck and green — from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange to try in my new garden in Tennessee. (I put an order in earlier in the summer to be sure they didn’t run out, but you can still find garlic available there and from other sources like Burpee and Gurney’s.) I planted Polish white softneck garlic, Siberian purple striped hardneck garlic and a mixed bag of green garlic for scallions. Here’s my order before I divided and planted it. This was an exciting package to get in the mailbox!
But what do all those names mean? When you’re looking for garlic varieties to grow, the main different types you’ll see are hardneck, softneck and elephant. Here’s a rundown of each.
Hardneck: These varieties have a woody stem in the center of the bulb that will develop a flower, called a scape, in spring. You should remove the scape to allow the plant to keep putting energy into producing big bulbs underground. Hardneck varieties grow well in cool climates but don’t keep as long (roughly 3 to 8 months), and they make fewer cloves but have stronger flavor.
Softneck: These garlic varieties grow better in warmer climates, don’t develop a scape and typically have a longer shelf life, which is why most grocery-store varieties are softneck. The soft stems can be braided together for pretty (and efficient) storage. They develop more, smaller cloves than hardneck varieties and keep up to 8 months.
Elephant: Like their namesake, these varieties are larger in every way: plants, stems, scapes and bulbs, and they need a little more space. Because they produce large cloves, elephant garlic varieties are preferred for roasting.
Green Garlic: These are small bulbs used for growing garlic scallions instead of growing full heads of garlic. I like to plant a few for using the garlic-flavored scallions as I would chives or spring onions during winter and early spring.
How to Grow Garlic
Garlic can be grown from true seed or from cloves (which are sometimes referred to as seed). I’ve never tried growing garlic from true seed because it’s just so easy to grow from cloves!
A lot of people wonder, Can you just plant bulbs from garlic you bought at the grocery? You can certainly try, but much of the garlic sold at grocery stores has been treated with a sprout inhibitor and won’t grow new bulbs as well. I recommend ordering your first round of garden garlic from an online source, like I did, and then you can replant annually from what you grow and harvest (hence the idea that you’ll never buy garlic again).
Gardeners in colder, northern climates should plant their garlic in October or early November. Southern gardeners in warmer climates can wait until November or even December to plant garlic. If you live in a very warm climate that doesn’t get temperatures below 40 degrees, you’ll need to give your bulbs a dose of cold to trigger sprouting — place in a cold spot for 2-3 weeks before planting to simulate a cold snap.
Garlic isn’t super picky about soil, but loose, fertile, well-draining soil is best (as it is with most veggies). Add some compost for good measure. Just before planting your garlic, divide each head into individual cloves. Don’t remove the skin from the cloves — the skin protects the garlic from rotting in the soil. Plant the cloves a few inches deep, root end down (pointed end up), and cover with soil.
Depending on the variety, plant your cloves in rows about 4 to 6 inches apart (a little further apart for elephant garlic). Mulch with leaves or compost. You’ll soon see sprouts popping out of the soil like these.
If you’re growing hardneck or elephant garlic, be sure to snip those scapes as they appear. They’ll look like a bud beginning to form. But don’t toss them — at least not in your compost bin! Toss them in salads or stir-fry instead. If you love garlic, you’ll really enjoy browsing recipes for using garlic scapes, from grilling them like spring onions to making garlic scape pesto. Yum.
Harvesting and Storing Your Garlic
In spring or early summer, your garlic bulbs will be ready to harvest. You’ll know your bulbs are ready when the leaves begin to turn yellow and start to die back (much like how you know onions are ready to harvest). Pull up a few and see how they look. When ready to harvest, the cloves should be full and the head about the size of your original. Your garlic heads will need to cure in a dry place for several weeks before they’re ready to eat. You can keep some to use in your kitchen and others to replant next season!
I’ll share more details and tricks for harvesting and storing garlic come spring. Until then, get planting. Especially if you live in the South, there’s still time!
Garlic is just one of the many things you can grow in a fall garden. See the DIY vegetable and fruit gardening guide for more ideas and browse the gallery below for some handy edible gardening tips.