Growing, Storing and Using Garlic

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Growing, Storing and Using Garlic

Garlic is a key ingredient to any well-stocked kitchen.

And, it is a relatively simple crop to grow. Even if you only have a small space for a few containers, odds are this easy-care crop will produce enough that you never have to buy another bulb from the market again.

Getting your garlic started in the fall is key. Planting garlic is available at local nurseries and from seed catalogers by late summer or early fall. Garlic sold for eating likely won’t even sprout. Before you order yours for planting, understand a few key terms:

  • Seed garlic is the term used for garlic bulbs grown specifically for planting. It does not look like seeds; it looks like garlic bulbs.
  • Bulbs and Cloves: a bulb of garlic contains several individual cloves of garlic; this is what you usually buy at the market. When you plant, break up the bulbs into individual cloves to plant. Each clove will develop into a new bulb to eat.
  • Hardneck and Softneck: Garlic comes as either a hardneck or a softneck variety. Hardnecks usually produce a smaller number of larger, very flavorful cloves, and they send up a central flower stalk, called a scape, in late spring. Softneck varieties, which do not produce a scape, have longer storage capacity, smaller cloves and are easier to braid than their hardneck cousins.
  • Scape: These flower stalks, found on hardneck varieties, should be harvested before the flower opens so that the plant puts its energy into forming large bulbs rather than flowers. The scape is tasty and can be used in place of garlic cloves for cooking.
  • Elephant garlic: Elephant garlic isn’t a true garlic and requires different care than real garlic.

Once you have chosen the varieties you plan to grow, choose a spot in the garden that is well-drained and receives good sunlight from fall to summer. Also, choose a spot that can remain undisturbed for several months. Garlic is planted in fall; it is harvested in early summer, after the tops have begun to brown and whither. Because it takes a long time to grow, starts looking ugly before harvest and is best when allowed to dry a bit at the end of its growing season, garlic isn’t a great crop to add to your pretty border garden.

If you are limited on gardening space, consider growing garlic in deep containers that can be moved around the garden over the long growing period. This can allow you to control moisture levels, light levels and more during the many months it takes to bring in your crop.

Garlic clove

When planting garlic, place individual cloves about 2-3” under the soil. The flat end is the rooting end; this is placed on the down side. Space the cloves far enough apart that they can develop into a much larger bulb. Cover the cloves with soil and top with some protective composted mulch or straw. Within a couple of weeks, many of the cloves will sprout and send a small shoot up about 2-6” above the soil. Then, growth should stop for winter. Even exposed to several feet of snow over winter, these bulbs will be growing quietly below the surface. And, come early spring, they will begin growing taller. Once the soil warms, they will appreciate the addition of a slow release, balanced fertilizer to give them an extra boost.

During spring, watch the plants carefully. Be sure that the soil is draining well or your garlic may rot in the ground. If any bulbs do begin to rot, pull them out and compost them. Then, add temporary protection from the rain to help keep maturing bulbs drier and warmer. This will help ensure the garlic builds strong cloves protected by several layers of the papery casing that makes for good storage garlic.

Garlic scape snipped

Not long after the mid-spring hardneck scapes are harvested the leafy stalks will begin to yellow. As this happens, dig around under the soil to check the progress on your bulbs. When about a third of the stalks have yellowed, your garlic should be ready to harvest.

To harvest your fresh garlic, resist the urge to pull it from the soil. Instead, carefully use your hands to dig around each bulb and lift it and its roots from the ground. Dust off as much dirt as possible from the roots, and set the bulbs in a warm, dry spot to begin curing (aka drying out). Depending on your location, within a few weeks, the bulbs should be ready to finish cleaning of any remaining dirt. To clean them at this point, a soft toothbrush comes in handy to get out the grit without tearing off all of the papery covering. Then garlic may be braided or simply hung in a dry, dark spot to use throughout the coming months.

If you grow a mix of hard and softnecks, use the hardnecks first. Because the softnecks store longer, you’ll want them come late winter. By spring, when the last of the stored garlic is beginning to shrivel, expect to begin harvesting the scapes emerging on your next crop.