2 In The Garden

Growing Garlic 101

So I decided it was high time that I started growing garlic. I was inspired by my friend Andrea and her Tata (Dad). Let me tell you, their garlic game was STRONG! So I put on my big girl panties and ordered some garlic seeds. I sourced mine from John Boy Farms which is Canadian, so yay. Lucky for me they have varieties that do well in Canada as well as being heritage varieties, which I love. At this point, you may be wondering what garlic “seed” is or you may know or think you know. In any case, do not fret for all will become clear very soon! So let’s learn a wee bit about garlic and why garlic kicks ass and why you should grow it on your homestead.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

So let’s take a look at some questions you may have and then I will walk you through the process of planting my garlic! This is exciting stuff people, so let’s take a look at all things garlic!

growing garlic

What is garlic?

So let’s start right at the beginning because that’s usually the best place to start. Garlic or by its fancy scientific name Allium sativum is a member of the onion family. It is closely related to such favourites as onions, leeks, chives and shallots. It is native to Central Asia and parts of Iran. The bulk of the garlic that is used worldwide actually comes from China, somewhere around 80%! There is even a Netflix documentary that touches on it, you should check out episode 3 of Rotten season 1.

Fun Garlic facts

  • The word garlic comes from the Old English garleac, which means gar (spear) and leac (leek). So basically spear-shaped leek which is a pretty apt description.
  • It produces hermaphrodite flowers
  • It can grow just over 3 feet tall
  • Elephant garlic is actually a leek instead of type of garlic
  • There are about 120 garlic cultivars originating from Central Asia
  • The whole garlic is called a bulb and the individual pieces inside are called cloves. This is not something you want to mix up in a recipe…

Garlic Health benefits

The often-quoted Hippocrates (the defacto father of medicine) stated: “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” Garlic definitely has a place in this sentiment. Most of its power comes from the sulfur components that get released when it is cut or crushed. Garlic exerts a positive effect on our bodies by helping to boost our immune systems. It has also been shown to help reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels and it’s damn delicious!

Why grow garlic at home?

There are many reasons. Top among them is being more sustainable and assuming you cook I mean who doesn’t use a sh*t ton of garlic? Also it’s delicious and that should be reason enough. But honestly, if you go the grocery store you are going to have one maybe two types of garlic available. Plus you don’t know where is has come from. On the flip side, if you grow it at home you can grown any number of different types and you will know its path from garden to table. I spent about $25 getting my garlic seeds this year. That netted me 7 different types! Then next year I don’t need to spend anything, I just need to save some cloves from m favourite types!

Hardneck vs Softneck?

So hopefully by this point you have made the wise decision to grow your own garlic. So all we have to do is decide on the best types for you to grow depending on where you live. Garlic is divided into two main categories; hardneck and softneck. So let’s take a look at both in more detail.

Hardneck Garlic

Scientifically this type is known as Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon and it includes such garlic types as porcelain, purple stripe and Rocambole. Hardneck garlic is typically grown in northern climates where the temperatures are cooler. The cloves these types of garlic produce tend to be bigger, but they do produce fewer cloves than the soft neck varieties. They also have a hard, woody central stalk (this is a scape) that grows from the middle of the bulb. They tend to be a bit more flavourful than the softneck varieties.

  • Porcelain garlic: These are large bulbs that a strong flavour and keep well.
    • Music
    • Big Boy
    • Rosewood
  • Purple stripe garlic: Intense in both colour and taste, where the purple colour going all the way into the clove.
    • Chesnok red
    • Persian star
    • Russian red
  • Rocambole garlic: These are known for their complex and full flavours.
    • French rocambole
    • Spanish Roja
    • Newfoundland heritage

Softneck Garlic

Scientifically this type is known as Allium sativum var. sativum and it includes such garlic types as artichoke, creole and silverskin. Softneck garlic tends to be grown in milder climates and the cloves are smaller and more dense. As they don’t grow garlic scrapes (unless very stressed) so they don’t require any pruning (but they also won’t give you any bulbils).

  • Artichoke garlic: It gets its name from the arrangement of the cloves inside the bulb.
    • Inchelium red
    • Italian Softneck
    • Sicilian Gold
  • Creole garlic: These were cultivated in Spain and spread by the Conquistadores.
    • Rose de Lautrec
    • Burgundy
    • Creole Red
  • Silverskin garlic: These are the ones you are most likely to find at the grocery store due to their incredibly long storage life.
    • Nootka Rose
    • Sicilian Silver
    • Rose du Var
growing garlic

Is garlic hard to grow?

Nope, this stuff is super easy peasy! It grows well from Zone 4 to Zone 9 and you should have some delicious garlic about 7-9 months after you plant. If you live in a mild enough climate you are lucky enough to be able to grow it year-round! I am not, so sucks to be me. Unlike most other things you are likely to grow in your garden, garlic is typically not grown from seeds. Even if you hear garlic seeds, most often the reference will be to garlic cloves. This is due to the fact that most garlic is propagated asexually, by planting the cloves.

Another great thing about growing garlic is that it can be grown relatively close together. This makes it perfect for square foot gardening. If you want to know more about this game-changing type of gardening, then be sure to check out my post on square foot gardening.

Ways to grow garlic

There are primarily three different ways to grow garlic:

  1. Cloves (also called garlic “seeds”) – This will produce asexual clones
  2. Bulbils – This will produce asexual clones
  3. Real garlic seeds – This may produce garlic which is different from the parent plant.

The most common method is growing garlic from cloves. This is the easiest and you get a full head of garlic for each clove you plant. However, over time, continuously using cloves tends to lead to smaller heads of garlic. Once you start to see a decline in the size of the garlic, it is a great time to let some mature and get yourself some bulbils. This will help to increase the strength of your plants. But more on this later…

Can you grow garlic from the grocery store?

You can try, but success will depend on where you live. Most of the grocery store garlic is of the soft neck variety. So if you are trying to fall plant grocery store garlic in a northern climate then you will most likely be disappointed, my friend. Also, keep in mind that the grocery store wants you to come back and buy more rather than growing it yourself. So its less likely to be productive at home. If you have decided that you want to start growing garlic then you are best served by making the investment in some proper garlic seed. You only need to do it once and it is definitely worth the money.

When to plant?

Planting time will vary depending on where you live and how big you want your garlic to be.

Fall garlic

To grow to its full potential, garlic needs to go through a stage of dormancy or vernalization. They need to be planted early enough so that they have time to form roots before the winter cold sets in. I’m in zone 5 so I try to get my garlic in the garden around the October timeframe. In colder regions garlic should be planted around mid September. It is a balance of giving the garlic enough time to set down roots, but not too much time as we don’t ideally want any shoots appearing above the soil until spring.

Fall planting of garlic is ideal for northern climates as we don’t have a long enough growing season for bulbs to reach their full potential if they are planted in the spring. So fall planting will give you the strongest and biggest cloves.

Spring garlic

If you live in a warm climate with a long growing season that spring planting is an option. It is even possible to plant in the spring in cold climates but you may or may not get bulbs or they be very small or be a single clove (called a round). These can always be saved and used in the fall for next years harvest.

What are garlic scrapes?

Garlic scrapes are the long green stalk that grows from the center of the bulb. They are present on hardneck varieties and are usually removed as this helps to focus the plant’s energy on creating a larger bulb. removing the scrapes tends to make the bulbs about 25% larger, so it is definitely worth the little effort it requires to remove them. Just make sure that you are using a sharp pair of pruners to cut the scapes. You don’t want to damage the plant, the ones I use in my garden are these fiskars ones.

As an added bonus they can also be eaten and they have a mild garlic flavour. Yo will most likely come accross them at your local farmers market. If you don’t feel like eating them then make sure you add them to your compost. If you don’t have a composter or compost pile in your backyard then check out my post on Composting 101 to get started! You can even compost if you live an apartment!

What are garlic bulbils?

If we are going to talk about garlic scrapes (which we just did) then we also need to talk about garlic bulbils. Because you see, these two things are connected. If you leave the scrapes on the bulb and let them mature then you will first end up with some pink or green/white garlic “flowers”. Once the flowers start to die off you will then become the proud owner of garlic bulbils or as they are also known aerial cloves.

So at this point, you are probably like great, WTF do I do with these and why do I want them? Well, friends, you are now the proud owner of some garlic top sets. This is another way that you can grow garlic at home. One of the benefits of growing garlic this way is that it avoids any of the soil-borne garlic diseases. It can also be used to strengthen garlic that is not growing as well as it once was as bulbils tend to grow stronger than their parent plant. However, the bulbs grown from bulbils will initially be smaller and will take a few years of harvest and replanting to reach full size again.

The bulbils will be clones of the parent plant. A single bulbil capsule (umbel) can contain anywhere from 10-100 bulbils! The amount will vary depending on the type of garlic and the growing conditions. Rocamboles tend to produce much bigger but fewer bulbils than the smaller but more prolific ones from porcelain varieties. Purple stripe varieties fall somewhere between the other two.

Planting requirements

Soil Requirements

Seeing as garlic is a bulb, the right type of soil plays a huge role in its growth! It requires soil that is loose and fast-draining. So make sure to avoid planting garlic anywhere in your garden where water tends to pool. This will help avoid diseases and root rot. Garlic also does not like dry and sandy soil as they tend to be low in organic matter. Ensure that there aren’t any rocks or weeds and you should be good.

If you have soggy clay or dry/sandy soil, then a raised bed may be your best bet. It will allow you to control your soil consistency for your garlic and also for any other veggies you may want to grow. My garden did not grow great this year, I do have a lot of clay in my soil. So next year my first task is to build three raised beds!

Water requirements

The number one watering requirement is DO NOT overwater! If you overwater you are going to increase the chances of disease and root rot. You will want to make sure that the soil has a chance to dry out a bit between waterings. That said, don’t let it get bone dry as this isn’t good either. An easy test is to check down an inch or so, if it’s wet then there is no need to water.

If you need a more exact method than sticking your finger in the soil you can always invest in a soil moisture meter. Overall you are going to want to water deeply every 7-10 days assuming there hasn’t been any rain. Make sure to stop watering once the leaves begin to turn brown and die off. This is a sign that the bulbs have finished forming and that it is almost time to harvest!

Sun requirements

Garlic is going to appreciate being planted in a location that gets full sun in order to produce a healthy crop. If you have sun mapped your garden then make sure you plant it in an area that has at least six hours of direct sunlight per day.

Fertilizer requirements

Make sure that the soil you grow your garlic in is enriched with organic, nitrogen-rich ingredients. Garlic is a heavy feeder, so it is going to require soil that has enough organic matter in it so that it can grow to its full potential. Garlic needs to have sufficient nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulphur in the soil. The best fix for this is some home-grown compost. If you don’t have your own compost check out my guide on composting like a pro.

Nitrogen is especially important in garlic growing up to be big and strong. But it will require work from you to keep the levels optimum. Nitrogen is not usually plentiful in soils, additionally, it is easily depleted without proper crop rotation or addition of fertilizer. An easy way to top up nitrogen levels naturally is the addition of chicken manure. If you are lucky enough to have your own chickens then it’s win-win! Just make sure to fertilize in the spring and taper it off towards mid-summer when you see the leaves starting to die back. Garlic also loves compost tea, I will be feeding my plants with it in the spring as I am planning to add a Bokashi Compost System to up my compost game.

Crop rotation requirements

As in any planting situation, crop rotation is always important. This is especially true when you are growing garlic (and any other members of the Allium family) as they drain a lot of the nutrients out of the soil. In addition, as previously mentioned keeping garlic (or other Alliums) in the same location year over year can increase the change of them succumbing to soil-related diseases.

How to plant garlic

Step 1 – Prepare the soil

Time to get your hands dirty! I always start with my trusty garden claw to help turn the soil and break it up. Next, you are going to want to make sure to remove any stones that you come across.  Add compost, peat and loam to the soil to make sure the soil has enough drainage, water retention and organic matter to help your garlic grow strong.

growing garlic

Step 2 – Prepare the cloves

Assuming you are planting from cloves you will want to carefully separate each of the individual cloves from your garlic bulbs. You will get the biggest garlic bulbs next year if you choose the largest cloves to plant.

growing garlic

Step 3 – Plant the cloves

The cloves need to be planted approximately 3 inches in the ground with the root (flat) side down and pointy side facing up. Depth is more important in Northern climates as it helps to protect the cloves as they overwinter. Keep the cloves about 5-6 inches apart to make sure that they have enough room to grow. Once they are all placed, cover them with soil.

growing garlic

Step 4 – Mulch (optional)

This is only going to be necessary if you live in a Northern climate as I do. You are going to want to cover the entire bed with a thick layer of mulch. This will help to protect the grwoing garlic over the winter and also help to reduce weeds in the spring. If you live somewhere warm (you lucky duck) then you can skip this step.

Step 5 – Weeding

This is another key component of growing garlic that produces big bulbs. Garlic doesn’t do well with any type of competition, so you are going to have to make sure you weed any garlic beds diligently. Just be careful that you don’t damage the delicate roots.

Diseases and pests to watch out for

Garlic Diseases

Luckily there are not many diseases that garlic is prone to be afflicted by. Which helps to make it even easier to grow! Seriously, have you planted it yet??? That said there are a few things you do need to watch for. Namely, wood decay fungus and nematodes. These especially suck as they will stay in the soil indefinitely once the soil is infected. So if you are unlucky enough to have them DO NOT plant your garlic in the same spot the next year. Also watch out for pink root, while it won’t kill your garlic it will make the roots small and pink/red.

Garlic Pests

These are fewer and even farther between than the diseases. Other than maybe a few pesky aphids you really shouldn’t have any pest problems. Garlic tends to repel most pests due to it’s odour. Which is good news for you, your garlic and even your other plants. Garlic can even keep moles and rabbits out of your other plants!

When to harvest garlic?

When you harvest will depend on when you planted your garlic. Stay tuned for a future post (next year) on harvesting and storing your garlic haul. I’ll leave you with this picture of Andrea and Tata’s epic garlic haul from this year! The bar has been set high, so we will just have to wait and see how I make out next summer!

growing garlic

How to save garlic to plant next year

My goal of becoming more sustainable and also debt-free will always include savings seeds! Lucky for me, and you, garlic can be saved so that it can be planted in the next growing season. To do this you are going to want to keep the largest bulb and leave it in its papery wrapper until it is time to plant.

So there you have it, growing garlic 101. What varieties are you planning on growing next year? In my garden, I will be giving both hard neck and soft neck varieties a try. In the hard neck category, I have Chesnok red, Persian star, Russian red, Legacy and Spanish Roja. For the soft neck category, I have Sicilian gold and Italian soft neck.

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Emily Adams
    October 16, 2019 at 8:54 pm

    We just bought a house and are figuring out what we want to try to grow in the coming year, so this was very interesting to read. I love cooking with garlic but hadn’t thought about growing it!

  • Reply
    healthywithjamie.com
    October 16, 2019 at 10:16 pm

    Thank you for sharing this helpful information! I love garlic 😋 and it’s so healthy.

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