Garlic is one of the easiest crops you can grow. The only tricky part is that in most regions of the country, garlic is planted in the fall for harvest the following summer. Planting should occur about 4 to 6 weeks before the ground freezes. By that time many summer crops have already been harvested, leaving behind some free garden space. Just remember that the space where you plant garlic won’t be available for another type of crop until late next summer.
There are two types of garlic: hard neck and soft neck. Soft neck garlic is the kind you generally find at the grocery store, and usually comes from the West Coast or China. It stores well and the stems can be braided. Most varieties are similar in flavor and intensity. Soft neck garlic is not as productive, disease-resistant or winter hardy as hard neck garlic, so it is not the most popular garlic for home gardeners.
Hard neck garlic has a stiff central stem that is surrounded by an outer ring of cloves. There are several distinct types and each has its own flavor (purple striped, Porcelain, and Rocambole).
Plant garlic 4 to 6 weeks before the soil freezes in the fall. In warm climates, store garlic in the fridge for a couple of weeks before planting. Prepare the planting area, adding compost and a little organic fertilizer. Separate the cloves of a head or bulb of garlic and plant each clove about 2 inches deep, pointy end up. Space them 3-4 inches apart in rows that are 6-8 inches apart. The biggest cloves will yield the biggest heads, so if space is limited, only plant the big ones.
Fall-planted garlic will establish roots before the ground freezes. You’ll rarely see anything happening above ground, but if you see a shoot or two, don’t worry. In colder areas, it’s good to cover your garlic with about 6 to 12 inches of straw, once the ground has frozen.
In early spring, the plants will start sending up their onion-like leaves. Since garlic grows very close to the soil surface, it doesn’t compete well with weeds. If you mulched your garlic for the winter, you can leave behind a 4” layer of mulch to suppress weeds. Otherwise, just keep the area well weeded.
In early summer, hard neck garlic will send up a curly “scape” that gradually unfolds to display a small, chive-like white flower on the end. Some gardeners believe that cutting off the scapes before they can unfurl and flower, will increase bulb size. It seems the jury is still out on that. The scapes do make wonderful additions to flower arrangements, and when young and tender, they are tasty in a stir fry.
Harvest garlic when 2 to 3 of the outer leaves wither and are more than half yellow. If you wait too long to harvest, the cloves will start to loosen. The tighter the head, the longer your garlic will store. Lift the whole plantsgently with a garden fork and store them in a cool, dry place out of the sun for a couple of weeks. Then use a pruning shears to cut off the leaves and most of the stem, about 1 inch above the head. Store your garlic in a cool, dry, dark place – 40-50 degrees is perfect. Save your largest bulbs for planting in late fall.