Halloween is my favorite holiday, but that doesn’t make me a fan of vampires. Nor does it make me a fan of bland food. Garlic takes care of both of these worries.
My first garlic-growing experience was on a farm where I lived and worked in 2013. I didn’t arrive in time for planting. Rather I watched hundreds of plants awake from their winter slumber and green up seemingly in tune with the trees throughout spring.
We harvested in June, hung them in the rafters of a barn, and shared them with farm customers (and amongst ourselves) for the next 10 months.
With all the rush to get seeds in the ground in springtime and harvest everything you can before frost, I like the break in the pattern that garlic offers. Plant it in early fall—some say before first frost, but I rarely get mine in by that time—and harvest it once your spring and summer crops are planted. Garlic fits into the rhythm so well and gives me something green to look at in the garden during the winter.
Hardneck vs Softneck Garlic
There are two types of garlic—hardneck and soft neck—and each type has its own varieties.
As far as I’m concerned, hardneck garlic is the way to go because, when you grow hardneck garlic, you get scapes. Scapes are eighty percent of the reason I grow as much garlic as I do. I love them.
In the spring, hardneck garlic sends up garlic-flavored flower shoots. Unless you’re trying to collect seed, you need to remove these shoots so the plant puts its energy into producing larger garlic bulbs, not a beautiful flower. Having a delicious, fresh, garlic-like harvest a month before garlic is actually ready to harvest is a treat.
Softneck garlic’s advantage is that it stores longer. When you purchase a head of garlic in the grocery store, it’s likely a softneck variety. I never have grown softneck but would like to try because I think garlic wreaths are the prettiest, and softneck garlic is needed to make those.
How to Source Seed Garlic
I have never started garlic from seed, rather from cloves. I grow a variety that was developed by friends to thrive in my area of Kentucky.
You could purchase organic garlic at the grocery store, as it wouldn’t have been treated with growth retardants. It’s better to purchase reliable, disease-free seed garlic from a trusted source, whether that’s a farmer or a seed company.
How to Grow Garlic
You know what garlic looks like: That head forms underground, so the soil needs to be loose enough for the cloves to fill out.
Plant each clove, pointy-end up, about 6 inches apart in rows 1 foot apart. I’ve read different spacing requirements, and this is what works for me. Push the cloves into the ground to about twice the clove’s depth.
Mulch to insulate it through the winter and also to suppress weeds. You’re in this crop for the long haul—it’ll grow for 8 or so months—and you don’t want to have to weed your garlic constantly.
Pull back the mulch to cultivate once after the stalks emerge in the fall and once after the weeds emerge in the spring.
Garlic wants regular watering to get established and again in the spring as heads are growing.
How to Harvest Garlic
Harvest is generally in June around here.
Wait until the bottom two leaves on the plant have died. Test-dig a garlic head to see how it looks. The skin will be pliable. You want to see a head with individually formed cloves and skin running between each clove. If your garlic head looks more like an onion, with one big head but no cloves, give the crop another couple of weeks. (Eat the head you dug—it will be delicious.)
You’re going to want to try to pull up the garlic by its top, but save yourself the frustration. You’ll pull the tops off more heads than not, and you need the tops to cure the garlic properly.
Instead, use a digging fork about 1 foot away from the plant to loosen the soil. The whole plant, head and all, should come up easily.
Sort through your garlic heads to separate out the largest—save these for planting next year—and any that are damaged (use these first).
How to Store Garlic
The curing process is important. I’ve done this several ways and will explain my preferred method.
After harvest, knock off mud clinging to the head. Don’t hose them off, though.
Cut the stringy roots off the bottom of the head. Be careful to not cut the bottom of the head itself.
Make bunches of six or so garlic stalks, and tie one bundle on each end of a piece of baling twine. I use a slip knot so the bundles remain secure as the garlic dries.
Hang each piece of twine from the rafters of a barn or garage—someplace dry with good airflow.
I leave mine hanging until I need them or the first frost arrives in the fall—whichever comes first. After this, move them to mesh bags or baskets in a cool, dry place in your home, out of direct sunlight.
How to Eat Garlic
I’d probably have an easier time writing about the dishes in which I don’t use garlic. It’s likely you’ll find me adding an additional clove to what the recipe requests. Garlic improves nearly everything, including bread, simple roasted potatoes and salad dressing.
I have even made garlic chocolate chip cookies.
Give garlic a go in your garden this fall. You’ll have aromatics to flavor your meals, protection from blood-sucking monsters and an excuse to make this cute yucca leaf basket while you gaze longingly at seed catalogs this winter.