Planting Garlic: The 411
Easy to grow and with seemingly endless health benefits, it's no wonder garlic has been used worldwide for centuries.
According to legend, garlic isn’t good for vampires—but it may have health benefits for the rest of us. The smelly bulbs, researchers say, help raise the level of naturally occurring hydrogen sulfide in our bodies. While large amounts would be toxic, in the right amounts, hydrogen sulfide acts as an antioxidant, and appears to help relax blood vessels and increase blood flow.
Scientists also think that eating garlic may protect the heart and help prevent breast, prostate, colon and other cancers. They suggest that adults have at least two medium-sized garlic cloves a day, first crushing them, and then letting them sit for 15 minutes before cooking or consuming them. Use garlic every time you cook, they recommend, to get enough into your diet, or eat garlic-rich snacks.
Growing your own garlic isn’t hard. Although garlic can be planted in the early spring, it's best to plant in the fall, 6 to 8 weeks before a hard frost. Fall planted cloves usually grow bigger and become more flavorful than spring-planted garlic. Gardeners in the South can plant into February or March.
Choose a softneck type if you live where the winters are mild, or a hardneck type if you live where the winters are cold. Softneck varieties usually have smaller, more pungent cloves, and keep well in storage. Hardnecks have bigger cloves that are prone to split in warm weather. Depending on where you live, you may be able to grow either type.
Before planting, separate your garlic bulbs into cloves. Use the smallest cloves for cooking, and plant the bigger ones in the fall, in loose, fertile soil that’s been cleared of weeds and grass. Place them pointed side up, spacing them 6” to 8” apart. The tips should be about 2” below the ground. Mulch with 6” of straw. Shoots may grow up through the mulch, and that’s okay. They’ll die back in a hard freeze.
When new shoots emerge the next spring, remove the mulch. Apply a foliar fertilizer every two weeks when leaves begin to grow, and keep fertilizing until mid-May, when the bulbs start developing underground. The late Darrell Merrell, a long-time gardener and director of the “Garlic Is Life” Symposium and Festival in Oklahoma, recommended making your own fertilizer with a tablespoon of liquid seaweed mix, a tablespoon of fish emulsion, and a gallon of water.
If rain is scarce, water your garlic with an inch of water each week while it’s actively growing. Stop watering in early June, or when the leaves turn yellow, so the bulbs can start firming up.
Most gardeners who grow garlic cut the scapes, which are curly, flowering stalks, when they appear around mid-June. This is believed to help direct energy to the new bulbs. Some gardeners leave the scapes and say they don’t see much difference in their yields. You might experiment with your crop.
Read about the kind of garlic you’re growing to know when to harvest. There are early, mid-season, and late varieties, but hot weather can make the bulbs grow faster, while a cold snap can delay their growth. You’ll know they’re ready when half or more of the leaves turn brown, often from late June to early July. Be careful; garlic bulbs are easily damaged or bruised. Use a garden fork to loosen the ground around them and gently lift them.
Garlic needs to cure, or dry. Put the whole plants in a single layer on a screen, or hang the bulbs in small bunches, in a dry spot out of the sun. When the outer skins turn papery, or in about 4 to 6 weeks, brush off the dirt and remove the roots. Try to keep the papery skins intact, and don’t wash the bulbs until you’re ready to use them.
Store your garlic is in a moderately humid, well-ventilated area that stays between 55 and 70 degrees F. Don’t put the bulbs in plastic bags, where moisture may cause rotting, or in the refrigerator, where the cold causes sprouting.
Varieties to try in your garden:
- ‘Elephant’ - A mild-tasting, late season garlic that forms huge heads. The plants can grow four to five feet tall. This is not a true garlic, but a member of the onion genus with a flavor similar to garlic.
- ‘Spanish Roja’ – A mid-season, hardneck garlic. It’s an heirloom that is believed to have been grown in northwest Oregon before 1900. Some gardeners refer to it as Greek garlic.
- ‘Transylvania’ - This softneck variety really does hail from a little village in the Transylvania Mountains. Discovered in a Romanian farmers market in the mid-1990s, it has a delicious flavor and keeps well in storage. Give it 90 to 150 days to mature.