How To Grow Your Own Garlic At Home

Growing garlic couldn't be easier. Here’s how to get started.

October 26, 2016
garlic
Evi Abeler Photography

The first time I harvested garlic, I was working on a small farm in eastern Oregon. Finally seeing a crop that no one had laid eyes on since it was planted the previous October was as exciting as the discovery of an ancient artifact. I was hooked. I’ve continued the annual ritual of growing garlic every year since. The process is simple. After each fall planting, the crop sits for nine months, like a vegetable in meditation. Lifted from the ground after its long slumber, it emerges fragrant and wise. Getting started can be as simple as buying a head of garlic at your farmers’ market, and the payoff in flavor will make you feel like you just painted the Mona Lisa.

(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!)

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Garlic 101 

Store-bought garlic, which typically comes from California, China, or Mexico, is often grown with conventional pesticides and is bred for durability—not flavor. But home gardeners have hundreds of varieties to choose from. There are two basic categories: hardneck and softneck. Hardnecks have a rigid central stalk that produces a scape (edible flower stem) about two months before harvest. Hardnecks have excellent flavor but limited storability—they’re best eaten within three to four months. Softnecks do not grow scapes, can last up to a year in storage, and have pliable stalks that braid easily. Their flavor is less complex than hardnecks’. Beyond these two categories, easy generalizations end. Garlic cultivars vary widely in flavor and shelf life. Growing a mix of short- and long-storing types keeps your pantry stocked into early summer. Like soft-ripened cheese, garlic becomes more complex the longer you push back your harvest. One of the major benefits of growing your own is finding the sweet spot of each variety. 

Related: 6 Ways To Make Garlic Last Longer

Getting started 

A garlic “seed” is nothing more than a clove of garlic planted root side down. Purchasing from an organic garlic grower will ensure that you get high-quality stock. If sourcing online, purchase in early fall for the best selection. Garlic takes a few years to adjust to new growing conditions; sourcing seed from a grower in your home climate, such as a vendor at your local farmers’ market, increases your chances of big, healthy bulbs right off the bat. After buying your first round of seed, you can save bulbs from your own harvest to replant in the fall. Choose those that are large, have five or more cloves, and are bruise- and blemish-free. Don’t bother planting a supermarket clove—even if it’s certified organic, its flavor is likely dull and flat. For the most vigorous yields, never plant a clove that has already sprouted.

 

Soil, Sun, Water 

A garden with rich soil and eight or more hours of sunlight will grow big, flavorful garlic. Growing in containers isn’t recommended. While it can be done, anything less than a 10-gallon tub will crowd the roots, yielding tiny cloves that are a pain to peel. Additionally, soil in a container is more likely to freeze, putting your crop at risk of cold damage. Before planting in the ground, add a 1- to 3-inch layer of aged compost to feed fall root growth. In the spring, top-dress the plants with more compost. Garlic needs regular watering until 40 to 50 percent of the leaves are brown, at which point the cloves need to begin drying in the soil, a crucial step for concentrating flavor and increasing storability.

Where to Plant

Because garlic is in the ground for up to nine months, it takes planning to find the right spot. Avoid replanting in the same place each year, which can allow harmful pathogens to accumulate in the soil. Resist the urge to interplant garlic between other vegetables. Its narrow leaves do not tolerate shading from bigger plants, and its roots dislike crowding. (Here's how to grow garlic greens indoors.)

Three to Try

The single malt of hardneck garlic, ‘Spanish Roja’ has a sweet, pure garlic flavor considered the gold standard by many growers. It’s best eaten directly after curing and stores for up to three months. It prefers cold winters, so try equally delicious ‘Killarney Red’ in warmer regions. For those who like garlic with a kick,  ‘Asian Tempest’ has jalapeño heat when raw that softens into garlicky richness when cooked. It stores well for a hardneck. Enjoy it two to five months after curing. A mellow softneck with buttery qualities, ‘Inchelium Red’ is a good choice to braid for late-winter and spring eating. Find all of these and more at filareefarm.com and burpee.com

 

Make It Happen

October–November 

planting garlic
John Borgoyne

Prep beds with compost. In cold climates, plant three to five weeks before soil freeze; in warm climates, by December. Plant one clove per hole 6 to 8 inches apart in rows 10 inches apart. Plant each clove 2 to 3 inches deep. Smooth top of soil and cover with 2 to 4 inches of mulch. (Be sure to follow this essential trick to planting healthy garlic.)

March–June

cutting garlic scapes
John Borgoyne

Remove mulch once the danger of a hard freeze has passed (in southern regions, skip this step). Weed! Water deeply but infrequently—once a week if no rain. Stop when half of the lower leaves turn brown. Fertilize. Harvest scapes.

Late June–August

drying garlic
John Borgoyne

Harvest when 50 to 75 percent of leaves have dried. Insert a pitchfork or shovel into the soil about 6 inches deep, 4 inches from stalk. Use leverage to gently lift bulb. Brush off dirt. Cure in a cool spot with good air flow and no direct sunlight. Lay bulbs on a shelf in a single layer or hang in bundles of six to nine. Cure three to four weeks, until bulb wrappers are completely dry. If you plan to braid your garlic, cure for two weeks first.

August–September

cleaning garlic
John Borgoyne

After curing, trim off the roots and stem, peel away outer wrappers, and use a toothbrush to remove any soil from the base. Don’t use water. Garlic rots easily when moisture enters the picture. Store cured and cleaned garlic in a cool, dry, dark place for two to six months, depending on the variety.