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how to grow garlic (and 2 new ones i'm trying)

'German Extra Hardy' has few cloves, each very largeHAIL HAMMERED MY GARDEN in late May, and among the casualties: much of my garlic crop. Yes, even the narrow, strappy leaves of my favorite Allium were slashed to ribbons, with many plants hit squarely and decapitated altogether. About half of my 75 ‘German Extra Hardy’ plants failed to make the big, fat bulbs I have been growing for more than a decade.  While I gradually build my stock back up, the loss presents an opportunity to try new varieties, both of which I’m planting this week, like this:

Timing: Sometime in the second half of October, ideally about five weeks before frost is in the ground, I plant the biggest cloves from the biggest heads of my July-harvested crop.  (I eat the rest, whether while cooking up easy soups and tomato sauce to freeze in the late summer and fall, or through the winter from heads hung in net bags in my 45ish-degree barn loft, with some of the harvest peeled and frozen right now like this to use next spring and summer, when even the best-stored heads would have sprouted otherwise.)

How deep? I poke the cloves, pointy side up, so that the tip is about 2 inches below the surface of the soil in my raised beds.  Mulching at planting time in areas with cold winters is recommended, so I simply layer on some leaf mold or composted stable bedding, which also helps come spring in weed control (it’s essential to keep garlic beds weed-free!).

How far apart? Spacing is easy, because the distance from the tip of my pinky finger to the tip of my thumb when I stretch my hand as wide as I can is 8 inches. Garlic likes about 5-9 inches between cloves in the row, and also between rows—and 8 (which falls in that range nicely) is my magic number, thanks to my built-in measuring stick.

How much to plant? Well, that depends not just on your usage, but also what variety you are growing. Yield can be from 4-12 times the amount you plant, says Alley Swiss at Filaree Farm in Oregon, a longtime organic garlic grower, with certain Artichoke types at the high end and some Porcelain types (the kind I grow) at the bottom.  Because my beloved ‘German Extra Hardy’ (also called ‘German Stiffneck’) is a little stingy that way, despite its giant individual cloves, I plant about 75 cloves so I have plenty to eat, share, and use as seed for next year.

Yes, grow enough to share! The sharing part is important—and sometimes pays you back in unexpected ways. I had given a neighbor the strain of ‘German Extra Hardy’ I’d been selecting for many years (aiming for ever-bigger heads of big cloves, and gradually adapting it to my local soil and climate, too). Because the neighbor’s garden, maybe a mile away, only got small hail (not my whopper size) she was able to rescue me with a few big, fat bulbs to use as some of my “seed” this year, along with the best ones from my measly harvest.

Two new-to-me varieties: To fill in the gaps, I went shopping—specifically for two other hardneck porcelain types. I chose ‘Premium Northern White’ (very cold-hardy, and about four cloves per bulb) and ‘Polish Hardneck’ (which found its way into the catalog I bought it from via a grower in Idaho, who got it from another in Ontario…again, the sharing thing!)

Why my obsession with hardneck types like these? They do well in cold-winter zones, and then there’s the bonus round: scapes. Hardnecks send up a flowering stalk with a delicious twist, great for grilling, sautéing and tossing into pasta, or making pesto from. If not removed, the stalk will eventually get woody, hence the hardneck or stiffneck name. Two harvests in one plant (unless they get hammered to the ground, that is).

What if your garlic sprouts in late fall or early winter, and you see green shoots pop up? No worry. It always does, even here in Zone 5B. It’s tough stuff; only golf-ball-sized hail seems to be a match for garlic in my decades-long experience. Assuming that doesn’t happen, by summer it will look like this:

hardneck garlic growing in raised beds

  1. Jennifer says:

    My husband just bought me garlic cloves to plant and I had no idea what to do with them. Now I do:-) I didn’t realize we could just plant cloves from heads in our pantry! Duh…I guess you can tell I’m not a big gardener…But I aspire!!

  2. Margit Van Schaick says:

    Margaret, thank you for this post! I still would like to try to plant some garlic, but couldn’t order earlier and now it seems they’re all sold out, especially the hard necks. Do you think it might be possible to just plant from garlic I can buy in the grocery store or at a farmer’s market (there’s a couple open through October within traveling distance in Vermont, where I live)?

  3. Scot in Houston says:

    I planted garlic last year in Houton – no time to order so I just bought some cloves from the store. All came up and grew well, but it did not head. Looked like green onions – no bulbs. Am thinking maybe our winters are too warm to trigger something to make things bulb up? Was thinking maybe I need to keep cloves in refrigerator for the winter and plant in early spring to simulate a winter experience or put cloves in refrigerator for 30 days or so or something to simulate a winter that triggers bulbing. Bottom line: can I grow good garlic in Houston?

    1. Daedalus says:

      Scot

      You can grow in Texas, but you need to choose a variety that likes heat. I’d suggest a creole type, like Ajo Rojo, Mexican (or Cuban) Purple or Rose du Lautrec. These varieties are softneck and usually have beautiful dark colored wrappers.

  4. myna lee says:

    some of the cloves dont separate easily and using a knife to assist, they are scored a bit, is it ok to plant them or should i set aside to eat.
    Do you have a technique for dividing up the bulb ?

  5. Dawn C says:

    Margaret,
    I am going to try my hand at growing garlic this year. I need to build a raised bed. How deep is your raised bed for garlic? And I have heard from fellow gardeners that it prefers plenty of manure. True?

  6. Didn’t know I could freeze individual cloves. That would be a great thing to do with smaller cloves from the large heads when I am planting. I have already planted my garlic, and gave away a bunch of small cloves. Next year I’ll freeze them. It’s nicer to give away complete heads, anyway.

  7. Carol says:

    I planted Russian Red Rocambole hardneck garlic about 2 weeks ago in my northern Vermont garden with a generous mulching of straw. It’s an heirloom variety with a strong garlic flavor and sweet aftertaste. Not a large bulb, really more medium sized, but hardy for my area. They’re already sprouted 2 – 3″ just as the first ‘spits’ of snow arrive.

  8. Stephanie Kramer says:

    I never thought about planting garlic until I read this. I have the same question as Margit above: can I plant regular grocery store garlic cloves??

  9. Krakatoa says:

    Thanks for the timely primer. Quick question, this summer a lot of my garlic fell over and was growing at an angle. What caused this and what should I do to prevent it? Did I not plant deeply enough? Thanks for sharing your wisdom and knowledge. My garden grows better because of you.

  10. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    My garlic is going in tomorrow, variety name: Music. Recommended by a fellow Master Gardener who was growing many fields full of it in this area for market sales. She says it needs ample drainage – her fields were sandy. My raised beds are so rich with compost that my garlic crop became too waterlogged in there. I now plant garlic directly into the ground, rotating positions year to year. I have a substantial portion of the 2013 crop remaining, but my storage area is not cool enough and I know it will not last. To take advantage of what can’t last in storage, I roast the garlic. I separate the cloves and remove the skins and later whip the roasted pieces into garlic butter, and freeze that. One day I hope to have not only a root cellar, but also a larger freezer.

  11. Pamela Davis says:

    I live in a very harsh (radical high/low temperature swings) in New Mexico. I plant both hard neck and soft neck garlic; and through several years of growing have chosen a couple of favorites. I like large, easily peeled bulbs with good keeping qualities and have settled on two: The hard neck is a variety grown by a local couple for several years so I don’t know what it is, but it seems like a Rocambole. The soft neck is Early Italian. Both thrive in my sandy soil–planted with a dressing of compost/manure and covered with a mulch of straw. I find that fertilizing is more important to large bulbs than planting the largest ones, although I do try to pick nice ones to plant. When the sprouts are 3 inches tall in the spring I spray with fish emulsion and then every two weeks until I get too busy to keep up.

    The soft necks far outlast the hard neck–I still had some in good shape in July–braided and hung in my pantry, at a temp of about 65′-68′ F in winter and warmer in summer. If I sell at the Farmers’ Market I usually sell the hard necks and of course, eat those first in the fall. Last year they lasted through February, but this year I am already out, having given the last of them to a neighbor who couldn’t afford the high prices for seed garlic on the net.

  12. Jules says:

    Thanks for the insight on how you approach garlic. I am planting again this fall after several years of not having a garden space. So excited at the prospects! I gave my last harvest extras to a neighbor who is continuing to propagate from that stock – garlic is indeed a “friendly share” in our gardens!

  13. Lisa Marie says:

    Last year I planted “grocery store” garlic with fine results, but I did buy organic garlic because regular commercial garlic is actually treated to prevent it from growing before it reaches the consumer. This year, I bought some beautiful unsprayed garlic from the farmer’s market – gigantic bulbs, locally grown. I’m hoping my efforts look something like what I bought.

    I didn’t actually fertilize my garlic much – just a topdressing of manure on a virgin garden bed I made by layering mulch over newspaper over grass. It came out beautifully, so I’m anxious to see what I get in this year’s bed that I double-dug, liberally enriched with manure and mulched with straw.

  14. Diana Hammerdorfer says:

    I planted our garlic this weekend too, 50-75 cloves of 5 different varieties which all got mixed together. Garlic and Rhubarb are 2 crops that grow like weeds in CO!

  15. Adem says:

    I love garlic and can’t wait to start growing my own. I completely agree with the sharing part as it feels great to share what you’ve grown and it looks like it paid you back. Good work!

  16. Sheila says:

    My garlic got white rot this year, so I researched it and discovered that I can’t plant garlic in that area again, because it can sit dormant in the soil for years. Any thoughts on where white rot comes from? (The garlic I was using came from my own stock, grown over the past 5 years, and was originally Music)

  17. Julie B Martin says:

    I kind of went nuts planting garlic last fall and harvested over 250 bulbs. I’ve given over 100 away to neighbors, but I need advice on how to use it! I’ve got garlic fermenting and plenty in the freezer and a pretty braid on display…now what?

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