How to grow garlic

Tips and advice on growing your own garlic.

Choosing the right bulb for planting

Are you going to grow the garlic you buy for three or four heads in a mesh bag for $1.99? Don’t. You shouldn’t even be eating it. One taste of homegrown or fresh organically grown will convince you. After all, you don’t know where that garlic’s been, or worse, whose nightsoil it’s been grown in.

I recommend you begin with organically-grown garlic from B.C. This is easily found at farmer’s markets and at fine food stores that stock organic produce. Select bulbs with large cloves—a larger-sized clove will grow a bigger plant, which ideally will yield a larger bulb. Just like tulip bulbs: the little bitty ones don’t make a big flower. It’s the same with garlic.

Choosing the right place and time

Figure out where you’re going to plant your garlic at this time, paying attention to where the sun is. You’re going to be planting sometime during October which you can stretch to early November. (My garlic-growing friends and I tend to start it as close to October 15 as we can). Earlier is best in terms of your own comfort as the soil is usually more pleasant to work with earlier than later, and garlic needs to have a cold period in the soil in order to produce well.

You’ll need about six inches between cloves (plants). The garlic needs to take in nourishment for nine months from that soil so give it some space. I realize “full sun” in winter is hardly applicable in Vancouver, but do pick the sunniest spot you have in your garden.

Container garlic?

Can you grow garlic in containers? I always thought it didn’t work well and had never had good results. However one of my Gaia students, Will Valley, grew garlic with classes at York House School – one clove per # 3 (aka three gallon) pot. That’s a lot of soil and pot for one clove, but evidently it worked and the garlic was a decent size.

Prepping the soil

Garlic likes well-drained soil. If the area is boggy, if there is moss or frogbit (little fungal-looking growths like on top of plant pots in garden centres sometimes) don’t plant garlic there either. Before planting, add a modest amount of manure, compost, SeaSoil or whatever. You can also top-dress with any of these after you plant your garlic, but don’t worry too much—you’re not making pavlova.

Garlic roots

How to plant

Make a narrow trench using your hands or a dull instrument (don’t hurt the worms please) about 4” deep in the soil. There is NO need to double-dig or disturb the intricate layers that worms and other critters have been spending lifetimes to create.

There’s also no need to plant the garlic in a straight line if you prefer the ‘drift’ look, or circles. If you do that, allow at least 8” between cloves. It’s important that garlic greens (leaves) have lots of sun.

Disassemble your garlic heads into cloves, do not peel the clove before planting. It’s a little bulb, like a tulip or daffodil bulb and needs that hard papery coat to protect it from what’s going on underneath the soil: critters, dampness, various soil-borne effects. If you find it very difficult, it’s fine to give the head a bit of a whack on a hard surface – but not too hard so that you bruise the garlic.

Optional: adding plant food

Sprinkle a handful of good organically based granular plant food per foot of row at the bottom of your narrow trench. Many gardeners I know have been having good results using glacial rock dust; evidently it contains a lot of trace elements that our west coast soil seems to be missing.

It’s available at nurseries or in big sacks from EverGro which you can share with gardening friends. If you know your soil is great, you don’t need to add anything so don’t worry too much about this. You might like to make a small row with fertilizer, another without, and compare your results. You’re now a Garlic Scientist.

Put the cloves in a bowl, or in your pocket, treating them gently. Don’t peel, I say again. If you’re doing this with kids, it’s very hard for them to resist peeling it – you’ll have to explain why it’s best not to. Tell them it’s like taking off their snowsuit or coat when it’s freezing out … it protects the garlic.

Place the clove, pointy side up (yes – people plant them upside down. It’s hard for the poor garlic to grow around in a circle, which it eventually does) … root side down. Poke it in a bit. Now, poke in the next clove at the suggested distance. If you’re the organized type and you’re planting a few rows, make the rows at least one foot apart.

Cover with a generous two inches of soil, or a scant three inches. It is very important that you now pat down the soil lovingly. Unless rain is predicted, water your garlic lightly, using a gentle mist from a hose, or a watering can with a ‘rose’ (the thing with little holes that screws on the end of the spout). Don’t water with a vengeance or strong stream.

Protect your garlic from wandering paws

If your garden is like mine, you will need to protect your garlic from cats until it begins to grow. You can arrange rose prunings or other thorny, nasty branches in a criss-cross pattern on top of the area. This will both keep the garlic safe from digging critters, and also remind you what you’ve got in there. (This is also a great idea for early spring sowing of things in bare ground which cats love).

Rose-pruning in spring usually coincides with planting, so it all works. You can also use upside down black plastic “flats” that nursery starts come in – they work well to keep critters out, and allow rain to get in. Nurseries always have way too many of them. Weigh these down with rocks if you have skunks, raccoons, or squirrels and you’ve seen them digging.

Remember to label

Important: put a label or stick in next to your future garlic, indicating what you have done; mark the different varieties here or record them somewhere. This is advised if you are over 35, critical if you are over 50, and urgent if you have a tidy mate/partner who likes to dig everything up occasionally.

What happens next

Usually, nothing happens between October 31 and February 14. (Occasionally if it’s warm, the garlic will sprout in November or December – that’s OK.) Mid-February through mid-March, thick grass-like bits will show up. This is known as “emergence” and is a perfect excuse for cooking something with lots of garlic and celebrate. As if we need another reason to drink fabulous red wine and dine on lovely pasta puttanesca, or other garlic-laden treats.

Your garlic will pick up speed and be actively growing by April. I like to feed it a couple of times during this period – kelp, fish fertilizer, anything else good. If the weather gets hot in May as it seems to lately, keep the garlic bed moist but not overly wet. Don’t bother to feed the garlic past mid-June.

Scape removal

At some point in July, your garlic plants will be quite tall, and a “scape” – a French-horn or gooseneck-shaped rounded stalk – will emanate from the centre of each plant, and begin to twine and twirl. This appendage, if allowed to remain on the plant, will eventually form a flower, and then seeds. While the scape is still tender, I recommend you cut it off and enjoy it in stir fries or other dishes, or in a fantastic torrid pesto. Whirl it with lime juice, freshly grated parmigiano, and olive oil. Savour it on bruschetta, pasta, or on slabs of toasted bread, topped with roasted anything. It is delicious and will give you foul garlic breath!

Scape-removal is controversial. (And, where does the term “scapegoat” come from?) Some garlic growers swear by removing them, others say it doesn’t make too much of a difference. Again – the scientist in you may want to leave a few scapes on and remove a few, then compare bulb size. The rationale for removing them is that the energy will go into forming the bulb, rather than the seed-head.

When to harvest

You’ll start to notice some of the lily-like leaves of the garlic turning yellowish by sometime in late June or early July. This is a natural process. Rather than water the garlic thinking there is something wrong with it, don’t. This is the time to withhold water; in fact it’s a good idea to stop watering your garlic completely.

Observe your garlic closely. When the third strappy leaf has turned yellow, it is time to harvest. It’s ok to wait until the fourth leaf yellows but don’t wait too long. The leaves correspond to layers of wrapping on the garlic bulb, and if left too long in the ground the garlic will open up like a lotus flower, splitting it’s casing. The more compact and solid the bulbs are, the longer they’ll keep.

How to harvest

To harvest, gently loosen soil around the area using a small garden fork or space. Pulling is not recommended as this often breaks the bulb from the stem. Using your hands, lift out the bulbs and marvel at how nature works. Your little cloves have turned into shiny, redolent heads of garlic. Don’t wash them—just knock a bit of the soil off. It will brush off easily later on. If the weather is nice (sometimes it isn’t), you can leave the garlic right “on the field,” as they do in Gilroy, California, garlic-growing capital of the US, or perhaps even the world as we know it. If it’s more typical Vancouver weather (sunny, rainy, cloudy, humid and/or hailing), place your garlic in a dry place to “cure.” That is, let it sit and dry rather slowly. If you have grown softneck garlic like Kiev or Sicilian Gold, you will now be able to braid your garlic. Most garlic grown in B.C. is hardneck.

I sometimes use a wooden clothes-drying rack for this stage, and leave it on an airy porch. Be careful if it gets too hot – don’t allow direct hot sunlight on the garlic or it will cook. In about two weeks you can cut the leaves off, leaving a couple of inches of stem. Trim the roots too leaving about half an inch.

Storing your garlic

Store your garlic in a cool, dry place. Darkness is good too. Don’t put garlic in the fridge. If you store it well, it should last until February or March – some varieties keep better than others – Evans, for example, is a very long keeper. There are other varieties – Persian Star, Korean, Yugoslavian Red, Music(a), Purple Ontario, Red Russian (often huge)….the list goes on.