It's Time for Garlic - Tips for a Successful Crop

Garlic is a fun crop to grow. About this time of year is the time to get it planted. It grows through the winter, and you will harvest it in the early summer. 

You will need to dedicate space for it. It's usually not a problem when you plant it in the fall, but come next spring, that space will still be occupied with the garlic.

I've written about how to grow garlic before. This time I'll share some tips to help you grow successfully. 

Tip 1: Choose The Best Quality Stock You Can Find

Garlic is grown from the individual cloves. The head is the bunch of cloves. See the image above. 

You may be tempted to go to the grocery store, grab a few heads of garlic, and plant them. Some folks have grown garlic successfully this way, but I never have. I get tiny little heads with itty bitty cloves, which are difficult to peel, slice, or mince/crush. Sometimes, all I get is a slightly larger clove after it grows all season. Just not worth the effort.

Spend the money and get good quality seed bulbs, preferably a supplier in your part of the country. They'll know which varieties grow well locally. 

Tip 2: Hardneck vs. Softneck Garlic - Choose the Right One

Hardneck garlic tends to grow better in the colder climates. Softneck garlic tends to grow better in warmer climates. Choose the right variety for your location.

Hardneck is more cold-tolerant and it needs a pretty long period of cold, about 2 months below 40 degrees, to stimulate the plant to grow a good size head. Softneck also needs a period of cold, but not as cold, and not as long. I don't have experience with growing softneck garlic, so I'm not so sure of the specifics. 

Not sure? If you are in zones 1 to 7, choose hardneck. In zones 8 and 9, choose softneck. 

Fun fact: Grocery store garlic is typically softneck. You can tell because it has more, smaller cloves of all different sizes. Hardneck has 5-8 cloves in one head that are all about the same size, and there's a firm, inedible "stem" that the cloves surround.

Tip 3: Keep Your Garlic Bed Weeded

Like many alliums (onions and leeks), garlic has a shallow root system. If weeds invade your planting bed, the weeds will take up nutrients in the soil faster than the garlic can. Your garlic heads won't be a large as they could be. 

Putting down a layer of mulch is a great way to keep your garlic bed weed-free. 

Tip 4: In Spring, Watch for Garlic Scapes

Garlic scapes are the "flower" stem of the garlic plant. Only hardneck garlic produces scapes. 

Scapes are distinctive. They form in the spring as the plant is growing vigorously. They emerge from the middle of the stalk, one per plant, and they grow in a curvy or curly fashion! 

Trim them off at the point it emerges from the stalk, when you see scapes. Trimming prevents the plant from spending energy on producing garlic seed, and allows the bulb to grow larger. 

The good news is that garlic scapes are edible! They can be used like a "green onion" with a milder garlic flavor. Search the Internet to find recipes - many people consider these very seasonal garlic scapes to be a delicacy and a seasonal treat!

Tip 5: Harvest Gently

You will have to dig up your garlic. It always seems to me that somehow the garlic dug itself down deeper as it grew, than how deep I remember planting the cloves months before! I'm not sure if that's true, really. The bulbs are well-embedded in the soil and the roots hold on tight. It takes some effort to dig them up. You can't simply pull them. 

Since you'll be digging, be careful not to nick or slice into your garlic bulbs. You won't be able to dry ("cure") the garlic heads if their outer layers are damaged; they'll rot or dry out. You can still use the damaged garlic fresh, right after digging them, though. It's not a total loss. 

Bonus Tip and Link 

Plant more garlic than you think you will need. 

I estimate how much I'll need, but even if I get a terrific harvest, I still run out before next year's garlic is ready to harvest. Each year I plant more than the year before.

And if you end up with too much, what a great problem to have! You can use it more generously by roasting whole heads of garlic and using the roasted garlic as a spread on bread. Or preserve it by freezing or by making pickled garlic. 

Don't forget to share your abundance - friends, family, neighbors, even the local food pantry can always find a way to use garlic. 

Gardeners in Kansas - here's an excellent presentation in PDF format from Kansas State University: Growing Garlic in the Great Plains

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