Garlic is a long-season, over-winter crop that does best when planted in the fall. It can then be harvested in the early summer, which allows space for another summer crop. This is rather unusual timing in the gardening world and it has always interested me for that reason. Planting garlic is a great way to end the gardening season by caching away a crop for early harvest next year.
Garlic is a member of the allium family, which includes onions and leeks. These root vegetables have long been used (for at least 5,000 years) by humans for both culinary and medicinal uses. Most evidence suggests that garlic originated from a wild ancestor in central Asia, possibly native to the western portion of Turkestan, which lead to widespread distribution across Asia, North Africa and Europe by humans. Early records of garlic mostly pertain to the medicinal uses of the plant. Ancient Egyptians noted medicinal uses of garlic in tomb art (2900 B.C.) and medical papyrus (1500 B.C.). Garlic was introduced in China between 140 and 86 BC and cultivation along the Red River was noted in the early fifth century. Ancient Greek and Roman literature regularly mentioned medicinal use of garlic, dating back as early as 79 B.C. It wasn’t until medieval times, around the 10th century, that human records indicate widespread culinary use, although it was certainly used as such throughout history. Today, it remains a staple food in most societies and is cultivated around the world in temperate to tropical climates.
In our area, fall planting of garlic is best, although spring planting is possible. In fall, plant early enough so the bulb has time to root and grow prior to our first hard freeze (28⁰F or below) which is typically around late-October. It is generally recommend to plant about 2-6 weeks prior to a hard freeze, however I have planted later (into November) with ample success. This can sometimes be a balancing act as planting should be timed to allow root development and limited top growth prior to a hard freeze, but not so early that too much tender top growth occurs and is killed back by winter, wasting energy stores. For that reason, I have usually erred on the side of later plantings to avoid too much top growth. I hope to get my garlic crop planted next weekend.
Garlic requires cold treatment for optimal shoot and bulb formation. Therefore, spring planted garlic must be stored in the refrigerator for approximately 8 weeks to meet chill requirements. Spring plantings must be done as soon as soils are workable to allow enough time for bulb development prior to hot weather. Fall soil preparation is recommended for spring plantings. Fall planted garlic will obtain its cold requirements in the soil and has the advantage of additional root growth prior to freezing temperatures, affording it a head start in spring.
Seed can be acquired from local growers or from online sources. However, store bought garlic is not recommended for planting. Each garlic bulb contains up to about a dozen individual cloves. Separate the bulbs into cloves shortly before planting. Research has shown that early separation into bulbs and storage prior to planting will lead to less yield, so always store garlic as an entire bulb. It is recommend that you remove the papery outer covering on the clove, similar to preparing it for cooking. However, I have had success with and without observing this step, based on the time available for peeling garlic. Peeling and prepping the cloves is a great task to do the night before planting.
Begin planting by creating a furrow approximately 1-2 inches deep. Individual cloves should be planted 3-5 inches apart in an upright position (pointed end up) to ensure a straight neck or stem. Cover the cloves with 1-2 inches of soil. Each row should be 18-30 inches apart or you may plant 5 inches apart in all directions to create a stand of garlic with no rows.
Garlic prefers well drained soils with high fertility. To accomplish this, I have always used raised beds with significant amounts of compost tilled into the soil. Similar to onion, garlic is highly sensitive to weed competition. The beauty of fall planting is that weed competition will be relatively low until next spring and summer. Mulch is great way to reduce weeds and should be applied at planting time. I have had the best luck with straw mulch in garlic plantings, but other organic mulch products, such as wood chips, will work as well.
Garlic is harvested in early summer (June or early July), when the leaves start to yellow. Bulbs should be dug prior to complete yellowing of tops, when about five green leaves still remain. If tops are allowed to dry completely in the field, there is risk of unpredictable moisture in the soil that may lead to rot of the delicate papery-thin scales that cover and protect the bulb.
Allow harvested bulbs to cure in a warm, well ventilated area away from direct sun for about 4-6 weeks. A box fan may be necessary to achieve good enough ventilation to avoid rotting bulbs before cured. Once cured, tops may be trimmed. Store in a cool, dry, airy place for maximum preservation. Most varieties have similar taste at harvest, but the curing process can bring out individual flavor characteristics among varieties.
In my home garden, garlic has been one of our most successful crops. You can easily save seed for next year if storage conditions are optimal. Over successive seasons, by selecting the biggest and best bulbs to save, you can develop your own “variety” that is specially adapted to our locale climate.