I first started gardening in college, when, one summer, I took over a small patch of land in my parents’ suburban backyard to grow corn, beans and tomatoes. Some years later, with a house and some kids of my own, my wife and I started tearing up our corner-lot backyard, putting in a small orchard, some berry bushes and a few rows of herbs and veggies. One garden crop, though, quickly emerged as a favorite to grow: garlic.
Why garlic instead of, say, plump tomatoes or prolific okra? While I do like growing both of those quite a lot, garlic is just distinctly satisfying, not to mention easy, to grow. There’s a set-it-and-forget it element to growing backyard bulbs that’s undeniably appealing, though harvesting tender summer scapes is one chore I relish.
And once you’ve stocked the pantry with your own garlic to enjoy ’til next harvest, you won’t want to go back to buying.
What follows are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the past decade-plus of growing garlic for my family.
When to Plant
Typically, garlic is planted in the fall. I like to get mine in the ground in late October for one simple reason: Bulbs will be ready around July 4, which is just easy to plan for.
But as I write this, it’s November. And you may not see this story until December. Did you miss your window of opportunity to grow garlic?
Nope. One year I put off planting until Christmas Eve, a traditional planting date for Irish gardeners (or so I’ve heard). And you can put garlic in the ground in spring for either spring garlic (or green garlic—like scallions) or for later harvest as a bulb (though usually without cloves).
But my family eats a lot of garlic, so big bulbs are best for our needs. Fall plantings, as such, are our standard.
How to Get Seed Garlic
After your first year of growing garlic, your crop will be pretty self-sustaining. Just pick the best bulbs from your harvest and use the cloves to grow next season’s crop.
But what if it’s your first year? Or maybe it’s been a few years and your stock needs refreshing. You can easily find garlic seed stock in nursery catalogs for reasonable prices, though shipping costs are typically substantial, and you’ll push your planting date out quite a bit as you wait on delivery.
Want to plant cloves this weekend? Here’s a quick tip: Just go get some garlic. You can totally head to the grocery store and pick up some organic bulbs (important because conventional garlic is likely sprayed with a growth inhibitor—not what you want from seed garlic) to tear apart and stick in the ground.
Even better? Head to the farmers market and purchase some locally grown seeds. I’m currently on my third year planting German hardy hardneck (because I like scapes, which softneck varieties don’t produce) garlic bought from a market delivery service during 202o’s lockdown. It grows awesome in my suburban backyard plot, and the bulbs get bigger each season as I select for ideal growth.
How to Plant Garlic
You can easily find overcomplicated instructions online for growing garlic, but in truth, you just need to stick some cloves in the ground. Here’s what’s worked for me across three different growing locations.
I’ve selected a pretty sunny space on the edge of my garden for growing garlic. This I attack with my rotary manual tiller (you know, with the four tines at the end) to loosen the soil. I dump a bin of compost onto this growing space and give it another quick till to break up and turn in.
Then I dig two shallow trenches the length of the growing space. Garlic cloves need a depth of 2 inches, with a spacing of 4 to 8 inches between plants. And because I have two rows, I space these about a foot apart (though a minimum of 6 inches will do). That’s a tightly growing crop, and I can easily get 50+ bulbs from my efficient little spot.
Next, it’s time to plant. Place cloves point up (important, but easy to remember if you’ve ever had a garlic clove sprout in the pantry) the requisite 4 to 8 inches apart down the row, then cover it all back up with dirt.
And because this is a fall planting, I like to gather fallen leaves and spread them over the top for insulation. I run my reel mower over the leaves a few times to mulch them for quicker decomposition come warmer weather. Then … I’m done for a while.
In winter, you won’t see much activity. Though the little green shoots that do poke through your winter garden can be a real boon to the senses when everything else is brown and dreary.
This winter dormancy is actually important to the plant, though, as it kick starts the process that eventually results in those big bulbs you’ll roast up next autumn for fantastic fall flavor.
Spring & Summer
As spring thaws bring warmer weather back to your life, the garlic you grow in your patch will spring to life. In my experience, growth starts off slowly, then explodes into a jungle of green once summer takes hold. Through all this, just make sure your garlic stays hydrated. (Mulch helps.)
As mentioned earlier, I am a big fan of scapes —the stalk hardneck garlic plants send off that, if not removed, eventually flower. Practically speaking, removing this stalk diverts energy downward to produce bigger bulbs. From a culinary perspective, cutting scapes gives you an early taste of your homegrown garlic.
If you planted garlic in fall, you should see scapes start to grow in early to mid June. Cut scapes when the stalk curls around itself (or earlier) to avoid tough, woody textures. I cut scapes at a slight angle close to the base using a pair of garden shears, and I typically do this in the high heat of the day so the cut will dry before evening temps introduce threat of disease to the wound.
Scapes taste delicious grilled, and many growers find they make an excellent pesto. I often use fresh scapes in place of garlic (the flavor is just a bit lighter) in stir fry or even pasta sauce. And I wash and toss extra scapes in the freezer to enjoy later (plants send out scapes at the same time, so I typically have a lot of them all at once).
I know it’s time to harvest my fall-planted garlic around July 4, but there’s another way to realize it’s time to fetch a garden fork: The plants look terrible. Stalks will start to brown and die a few weeks before it’s time to harvest. Head out to collect your harvest when the stalks look downright dead.
(Note: If you have a lot of garlic, feel free to harvest green in the fall. The delicate flavor is a special treat.)
My tool of choice for harvesting garlic is a potato fork, though I’ve used a pitchfork in the past. Two points to keep in mind when harvesting: 1.) those bulbs are probably farther down than you think and 2.) they’re not always where you assume, so leave plenty of room when plunging those tines into the ground.
Regardless of care, though, you’ll probably nick a bulb or two. That’s fine—just remove the injured cloves and enjoy these bulbs first.
But harvesting is generally an easy task. Push tines into the ground a good 5 to 6 inches away from the stalk and well into the ground, then, once you’re pretty certain you’re under the bulb, pull the handle back to push the plant up. You need to loosen the roots on the underside of your bulb, and don’t think you can simply pull secured garlic out by the stalk. (The stalk is likely to break off, then you have to go searching for the garlic, which is a pain.)
Work the soil loose around the plant, then pull bulb out, going back to rework the soil if you encounter resistance. Once you have a garlic bulb out, move on to the next one until you’ve harvested everything.
Read more: Market gardeners shouldn’t overlook garlic.
As with other edible alliums and tubers, you need to cure your garlic for winter storage. Some people will get fancy and braid the stalks, then hang these to dry. I’ve done that, and I’ve also just lopped off the stalks and laid them out to cure. None of this is as important as it is to let them sit in a low-humidity space for a while so they can dry out without growing mold.
You can, of course, enjoy bulbs as you need them during the two or so weeks they’re curing. This is simply about prepping bulbs for storage through the winter and spring.
Once bulbs are cured, you can trim off any extra stalks or roots and store in a well-ventilated space. (I have a full basket in our basement pantry right now.) And take this time to select your best, biggest bulbs for next year’s crop, setting them aside to plant in next fall’s garlic garden.
And that’s it. You now grow garlic!