Garlic is part of the Allium genus, which includes onions, leeks, chives, scallions, and shallots. There are two main types that gardeners grow: the “softneck” garlic, which has a floppy stalk, or the “hardneck” variety that grows a stiff stalk that remains upright and doesn’t flop over when it’s ready to harvest. Softneck varieties are most common commercially because they are easy to grow and have a long shelf life.
Don’t get intimidated by the jargon: we’ve already covered why you should start planting garlic in your fall garden, and the time to start is now!
STARTING YOUR GARLIC PLANTS
There are several methods for starting garlic plants, and which one you choose depends on your expertise and preference:
● The most common way to propagate garlic is to plant cloves from an existing bulb. You can buy organic bulbs from the grocery store and propagate them yourself (but these will most likely be softback varieties of garlic). Choose organically grown garlic, some store-bought garlic plants have been sprayed with pesticides and growth inhibitors.
● Garlic can be grown from bulbils, the tiny cloves that grow out of mature plants' scapes and flowers. It can take up to two years for these to mature.
● You can get pre-chilled or “pre-vernalized,” seed cloves from a garden center or nursery you can plant right away.
● Choosing garlic varieties
Hardneck: For full-bodied cloves that peel easily, try growing a hardneck variety.
Siberian, Music and Bogatyr are popular for having large bulbs.
Softneck: For fast-growing softneck, consider these varieties.
California early is a fast grower with an excellent shelf life. Polish softneck is also popular in chillier places, along with German White and Oregon Blue.
● Plant container and growing environment
Start your garlic plants in a container that’s at least eight to 10 inches deep to give the roots enough space to grow comfortably.
Leave the outer skin on the cloves when you break them apart from the bulb, it is essential to protect the cloves.
Cloves need to be at least 4 to 6 inches apart, so choose containers wide enough and deep enough to take the expanding bulbs. You can plant one or 2 garlic plants in a standard 8 inch plant pot.
● Location and lighting
You can start early to grow garlic plants indoors, then place them outdoors in a sunny, cool spot for fall. Softneck varieties planted in the spring have a much shorter growing season (usually around 90 days) and smaller cloves.
Whether softneck or hardneck, make sure your container location gets at least six to eight hours of sun daily.
● Soil mix
Give your garlic plants sieved, loose potting soil amended with some 10-10-10 NPK fertilizer. It thrives in soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.5.
To prevent pests and fungi that are attracted to alliums, don’t reuse soil used to plant other things for your garlic plants. Give them fresh soil free from fungal contamination.
● Watering requirements
Garlic is easy to care for; give them 1/2 to 1 inch of water every week and consistent temperatures.Allow the first few inches of soil to dry out before watering, wet feet can rot developing bulbs.
After planting, cover your plants with an inch of mulch to keep moisture and cool locked in.
Hardneck varieties don't need to be watered once the first frost has occurred and it gets cold enough to allow vernalization to begin.
ONGOING CARE OF GARLIC PLANTS
Once the soil starts to warm up in the spring, garlic will form underground bulbs. If the soil is too hot, garlic bulbs will stop growing before their time, leaving you with small or underdeveloped bulbs. Keeping the soil cool is an important factor in the success of your developing bulbs.
That’s where mulching comes in.
● Mulching with lighter colored materials like straw, will reflect heat away from your plant in the summer.
● In winter, mulching will keep the soil cool, leading to bigger and better yields. Besides preventing nutrient loss, winter mulch protects the young plants from strong winds.
As the last frost has passed and the weather warms up, garlic will start sprouting in earnest. This is when you’ll know it’s time to resume your normal watering schedule for your garlic plants.
● You can choose to trim the long scapes off your hardneck plants and use them in cooking. Cutting back the scapes is said to encourage bigger bulbs as the plant will divert more resources to bulb formation than flowering.
With the spring growth, it is time to start fertilizing garlic plants again.You can mix in a granular 5-10-10 NPK fertilizer over the soil, or use well-rotted manure or compost. Be light handed with fertilizing.
● Pest and disease management
Garlic plants are a pest deterrent in their own right, so they would not usually fall to pests or disease.
These are 2 common conditions that affect garlic plants:
Downy mildew can sometimes be a problem in humid or crowded conditions, presenting as white patches on the leaves. Spray your plants with a diluted mix of pesticide and keep the leaves dry when watering. Spread out plants to prevent the mildew spreading and dry out the plants.
Basal rot starts as yellowing around the base of the plant, spreading to the leaves slowly going brown. Remove the infected bulbs and as much of the surrounding soil as possible and disinfect the pot. Add new soil to the pot and start over.
Onion white rot can be a persistent soil-borne fungal disease, and the solution is to start over with another soil altogether.
Onion root maggots attack onions, garlic and other soft, root-borne bulb plants. They eat through the young bulbs, and affected plants will have mushy insides.
Prevent this by starting with well-draining, loose soil and take care not to overwater garlic plants.
HARVESTING AND STORAGE
● When to harvest:
Both softneck and hardneck garlic varieties require about six to nine months to reach maturity, depending on growing conditions and the cultivar. Observe when the tops of your plants start to turn yellow, and stop watering them. This usually occurs in the early summer, between July and August.
When the leaves start getting floppy, that’s when you start harvesting, starting with the most mature.
● How to harvest:
Gently dig into the soil to remove garlic bulbs - don’t put them up from the leaves. The leaves and stalks need to be intact to cure garlic properly. '
● Curing and storing garlic:
You can use your freshly harvested garlic, but to store them, you will need to cure (dry out) the bulbs.
Curing allows the bulbs to mature fully and get a better flavor, as the moisture drains from the stalks down to the bulb.
To cure your garlic bulbs:
● Make sure you harvest them with the stalks and leaves intact.
● Leave as much of the dirt and leaves on your cloves - a light brushing is all you need to do to clean it. Take care not to add any more moisture with water or wetness, and choose a dry location for curing to prevent fungi, mold, and viruses attacking the fresh cloves.
● Hang the plants somewhere dry and shady with good ventilation, but no direct sunlight. A storeroom or patio corner is fine.
● Wait 2-4 weeks for the fresh cloves to dry out. You can choose how dry you want your garlic to be, but drier cloves store for longer.
Enjoy your garlic harvest in a variety of cooking!