A true set it and forget it plant. You know that excitement you feel when you notice the first spring flowers peeking out? Daffodils, tulips, alliums surprise you with their welcomed arrival to announce that a new growing season is here. You took the time in the fall to plant their bulbs and your patience paid off in a big way! Garlic can be just as fulfilling. I plant garlic every year right around the first frost date. Here in the garden state this means mid October. The sweet spot for garlic is to plant early enough for the clove to push roots before winter, but late enough that the leaves don’t push before spring. I make sure to rotate its planting site every season and choose a fresh spot in the garden where it will stay until the following July. Rotation means less soil depletion which means less disease, pests, and healthier plants. I order seed garlic from Johnny Seeds which has always done well for me. Being in the northeast (zone 6a) I go for the hard neck or stiff neck varieties. However, those of you in the southern states where the winter does not get as cold, may do better with the soft neck varieties. An added bonus of the hard necks are the garlic scapes!
- Your seed garlic will usually arrive as a whole bulb. You need to separate it in to individual cloves. Each clove will become its own plant.
2. Prepare your bed. I start by using a Broad Fork to loosen the soil without being too disruptive to the soil layers and thus not harming the organisms and ecosystems living in the earth. If you do not have a Broad Fork, a pitch fork will do just fine. If the soil has never been cultivated before then turning it a few extra times to create a looser planting bed is ok. I add a bag of Coast of Maine compost to give my garlic a boost of nutrition but any organic compost will work. Then I put down a product called azomite which comes from an ancient volcanic eruption. This step helps to remineralize our soil, encouraging plant and root growth. Many of the vegetables grown today are deficient due to overworked and depleted soils. I incorporate these two products with the first few inches of top soil before starting to plant.
3. Plant: I plant my cloves relatively close together, about 4-6″ apart and they always grow really well. With the root side down and the pointy side up, I push the cloves 2″ deep into the soil. Then cover back up with soil.
4. Mulch: After all of the garlic is planted, I mulch the entire bed. This year I am using aged pine shavings from my chicken brooder but previous years I have used straw, hay or grass clippings. You will want to apply a thick layer, about 3-4″.
5. Water in the cloves. This is probably the only time I specifically water the garlic in my garden unless we are going through a serious dry spell. The mulch from the previous step help preserve the moisture from rain and melted snow when the ground thaws in the spring.
6. Weeding. Once spring arrives so do the weeds. Keeping your garlic patch weeded will ensure a more abundant harvest with robust large bulbs. Because garlic has narrow upright leaves, weeds can easily take over when the mulch starts to decompose. The bed will need to be weeded once a week or so.
7. Garlic Scapes. Yum! In June, hard neck varieties send up a flower stalk called a garlic scape. Once the garlic scape starts to curl you need to prune it off. Pruning the garlic scape will redirect energy back down into the bulb where you want it. An added plus is that the garlic scapes are edible and delicious! In our house we enjoy them sautéed, roasted or thrown into pesto.
8. Harvest Window. When the lower 3-4 leaves of the garlic plant turn brown it is time to harvest. For us this is typically in the first part of July. If left too long in the ground the bulbs will start to separate and rot. I use my Broad Fork to loosen the soil around each plant before pulling them up but again a pitch fork will work too. Then i shake off as much of the dirt as I can.
9. Curing: I tie the garlic together in bundles of 4-5 plants. Then it needs a warm, dark space with good air flow. I use my shed and will prop the door open to get really good circulation. Curing takes about 2-3 weeks. When the skin of the garlic is papery it is done. Cut off the stalks and any long roots before putting away for proper storage. I store mine in our basement inside of a mesh bag.
A question I often get asked is why can’t I just plant it in the spring? And you can! BUT, you will get much smaller bulbs than what you’re used to getting from the grocery store or the farmers market. I’ve never done it myself and I’ve never felt compelled to try. Planting in the fall has always proven well and it’s one less thing I need to think about during the spring hustle. But the best part about planting garlic in the fall is the ritual of it. It represents a point in time that we savor as a family. A time where we reflect on all we accomplished throughout the season. A time when we let go of things that did not come to fruition. A time of looking forward to the closeness of the holiday season ahead and the sweet slow days of winter. As day length wanes, each clove becomes a prayer for the return of the light. We can move into the darker days of the year with the hope that life will bloom once more.