How to Grow & Harvest Garlic

Garlic. It’s one of the most fragrant, flavorful and versatile items we cook with and is a great addition to any garden. I grew garlic for the first time a couple of years ago and was amazed at how much my 4 x 4 garden bed could produce. We had enough garlic to last the two of us for about a year from that single crop (and we use garlic a lot). I couldn’t believe how easy it was to grow…essentially a “set-it-and-forget-it” kind of planting.

A member of the Allium family, garlic is a close cousin to the onion, shallot and leek among others. Garlic has a long growing season and is typically planted in autumn and isn’t harvested until mid-summer. (Best time to plant garlic is September - November.) Garlic begins to grow its roots after planting until the temperatures start to freeze. It then lays dormant throughout winter until the warmer temperatures of spring, when it begins to grow again.

Assorted Garlic

Assorted Garlic

Types of Garlic

There are many types of garlic, but the two most common types are:

  • Hardneck

  • Softneck

Hardneck

Hardneck garlic has a central hard stalk in the middle of the bulb around which the garlic cloves form in a fairly symmetrical pattern. Hardnecks tend to have a bolder flavor than softnecks (although that’s debatable) and have an extra culinary bonus as they yield “scapes.” Scapes are curly green stems that grow from the bulb and are capped by a smaller bulb that contains its flowers, called a “bulbil.” Scapes appear about a month or two before the garlic is ready to be harvested. If you grow hardneck garlic, harvest the scapes when they start to curl by cutting them as far down toward the base without cutting the leaves from the garlic bulb. Even if you don’t plan on eating the scapes, trimming them will allow all the energy to be directed to the main bulb to complete its growth.

hardneck-garlic
Garlic Scapes

Garlic Scapes

Softneck

Grocery stores tend to carry the softneck garlic variety because it has a longer shelf life. It can have anywhere from about 12-20 cloves of varying size, often overlapping. The papery layers tend to form upwards into the soft neck. Its flavor tends to be slightly milder than its hardneck cousin.

Hardneck garlic (left) and Softneck garlic (right)

Hardneck garlic (left) and Softneck garlic (right)

How to Grow Garlic

Plant garlic from the cloves of the bulb. If you’re purchasing a bulb to plant, do not get it from a grocery store as it’s likely been treated to keep longer on the shelf. Get the bulbs from a reputable grower, nursery or seed catalog. Garlic should be planted when soil and air temperatures are cooler. Although some gardeners plant in spring, in most northern climates, the ideal time to plant is in autumn (September - November). If you’re in a warmer climate and want to grow garlic, wait until your nights start getting consistently cooler, and try storing your garlic in a cool spot a few weeks ahead of planting to cause sprouting to begin.

Garlic clove plantings

Garlic clove plantings

Within 24 – 48 hours before planting, separate the cloves from the bulb carefully so you don’t damage them (do not peel the husk). If you separate them too far in advance, they may dry out. Pick the largest, best-looking, undamaged cloves for planting. Plant cloves in well-drained soil about 2 inches deep, 4 inches apart in rows 6 inches apart. Aim for a soil pH between 6.0-7.0. Place the cloves with the basal plate down into the soil (narrow tip pointing up) and cover with soil and compost.

I’ve seen varying recommendations for row spacing - sometimes up to 9-24 inches apart. I found 6 inches to be adequate for the small garden bed.

Hard-neck garlic (left) and soft-neck garlic (right)

Hard-neck garlic (left) and soft-neck garlic (right)

Overwintering

Layer the soil in autumn with straw mulch, shredded leaves or other organic clean cover for overwintering. This will help prevent too many weeds from forming and helps the soil retain moisture. Remove the cover in spring well after the threat of frost has passed and pull any weeds that may have formed. In spring, garlic shoots will begin to emerge.

Straw mulch

Straw mulch

Harvesting Garlic

For fall planting, garlic should be ready to harvest the following July or August. When the lower leaves start to brown and wilt, but you’ve still got 5-6 green leaves, it’s likely time to pull the garlic. (Those leaves each represent a layer of the husk around the bulb.) Loosen the soil and gently remove the bulbs. Remove large clumps of dirt from the bulb, but there’s no need to heavily “clean” them and do not remove the papery husk. The husk will help slow the process of sprouting and will help them keep longer in storage. Bulbs should be hung from the stems and dried for 4-6 weeks in cool dry location.

I used a clothes-drying rack in my basement to dry the garlic (see photos below). It worked perfectly. As you can see from the photos, farms may hang them in the barn to dry but for urban gardeners, you can improvise with household materials.

When ready to store, trim the stems about 1 1/2- 2″ from the bulb. Store garlic in a dry (low humidity) location that maintains a temperature around 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit. Hardneck varieties should keep for about 5-6 months; Store softnecks up to about 8 months.

I don’t have an area in my house where I can adequately control the temperature for storage, so I stored my garlic in the refrigerator. I constructed something out of a couple of paper bags that resembled a small shoe box with the top open. It wasn’t pretty but it worked.

My garlic harvest

My garlic harvest

Garlic stored at one of the farms I visited during the Tour de Farm NJ bike tour.

Garlic stored at one of the farms I visited during the Tour de Farm NJ bike tour.

A simple clothes-drying rack can be used to dry garlic

A simple clothes-drying rack can be used to dry garlic

The clothes-drying rack worked perfectly for drying garlic

The clothes-drying rack worked perfectly for drying garlic

This is an updated version of a post I wrote for Urban Gardeners Republic.

I'm Catherine, a small-space urban gardener in New Jersey (Zone 7a) who started gardening out of upcycled wooden wine boxes. For years, I wanted to try gardening, but didn't know where to start. I got up the nerve to give it a try - starting small with a single wooden wine box that turned an idea into reality. That reality quickly turned into my filling every sunny inch of space of my postage-stamp size lawn and turning it into a garden oasis. I grow mostly vegetables and herbs with some exception for fruits (when the squirrels and rabbits don't get to them first). I love learning from gardening communities (and lots of trial and error).

I hope one day to take all that I'm learning and apply it to a larger plot of land. To help me get there, I'm extending my learning through the University of Massachusetts, Stockbridge School of Agriculture's, Sustainable Food & Farming program. (I'm addicted to learning as much as I am to gardening.)

This blog isn't just for gardeners (although I hope it inspires some of you to try growing a plant or two). The recipes (food & cocktails) in theRecipes section of this blog contain ingredients that don't have to come from your own backyard. If you like visiting your local farmer's market(or even your grocery store) and would like to get some new recipes you can use with the fresh produce and herbs you get from your local growers, this blog will have plenty for you too.

In addition to gardening and cooking, I also love to visit and photograph my surroundings. I feel fortunate to have so many amazing places here in New York/New Jersey, where I live and work. Visits to local farms, farmer's markets, and cycling through rural farming areas help me feel connected and refreshed. share these experiences in theExploring section of the blog so that you might visit through proxy or be inspired enough to visit yourself. 

With very few exceptions, all of the photographs on this site are ones I have taken myself. (For the photographers out there, I shoot with a Canon 7D and sometimes with my Lumix  DMC-ZS15 compact camera.) 

I hope this blog inspires you to grow, create, explore, and try something new. The best way to stay up-to-date is to follow me using the social buttons above, or click Subscribe and sign up for my email newsletters.    

Happy Gardening and Healthful Living!

- Catherine