Think of this amazing Allium like a daffodil bulb (but considerably more delicious): It requires exposure to cold temperatures to properly develop.
I TALK WITH A LOT of people about vegetable gardening. The vast majority of these conversations take place in the spring, the unofficial launch of each year’s garden calendar. During the discussion, I am inevitably conscripted to list all of the crops that are appropriate for spring planting. After detailing an interminable list, which includes dozens of Brassicas cultivars alone, I get one invariable follow-up question: “What about garlic?”
I probably should have learned by now to include a garlic disclaimer at the beginning of every conversation. Something to the effect of: “The information contained in and accompanying this communication will not include discussion of garlic, and is intended solely for the use of the spring garden.” In other words, please note that garlic is a fall-planted crop that requires exposure to cold temperatures to properly develop. Fortunately, right now it’s fall, and October is a perfect time to discuss garlic. Talking about garlic now affords us plenty of time to get this year’s crop in the ground.
Garlic is an easy crop to grow. It is a member of the Allium family, the same glorious lineage that provides us with onions, scallions, shallots and leeks. While it is closely related to these well-known crops, garlic has a relatively unusual growth cycle. It is unique, at least among those plants we consider staples of the annual vegetable garden. Garlic’s growth cycle is similar to that of a flower bulb, such as a tulip or daffodil. (While garlic can theoretically be grown from seed, this process adds at least a full year to the production cycle and is considered an advanced gardening project.)
When you purchase a head of garlic, it is comprised of an array of individual cloves around a central stem. Each clove is a miniature bulb and acts similarly to other bulbs you plant each fall. When properly planted, each individual clove will develop into a full-sized head of garlic.
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How to plant garlic
Choose your seed-stock. Keep in mind that, although you will be planting garlic cloves, it is often referred to as “seed garlic” when sold for replanting. Garlic comes in two primary subspecies, which are referred to as “hardneck” and “softneck.”
Hardneck vs. softneck
Hardneck garlic has a rigid central stem (the hard neck).
• Fewer, but larger cloves, often 5 to 8.
• A shorter storage life.
• More flavor. This is the type preferred by many restaurants and chefs.
• Hardneck garlic is the source of garlic “scapes,” the edible flowering stalk produced in late spring.
Softneck garlic has a malleable central stem that is often weaved together in clusters to form garlic braids.
• Many cloves, often up to 15 to 20.
• A much longer storage life, making this the preferred variety for the long-term
If space allows, I would highly recommend planting both types. If you want to plant enough to use throughout the year, make sure most of your plants are softneck.
Most seed companies will sell garlic in the fall. However, it is perpetually in short supply, so make sure you order as early as possible. If you can’t find seed garlic in a local nursery or an online retailer, you can plant the organic garlic found in the produce section of your local grocery store. If buying seed from the grocery store, look for heads that are tight, with firm cloves.
Prepare the garden as you would for any new annual vegetable crop: Loosen the soil, check the soil pH, and mix in compost and/or a balanced fertilizer.
Plant garlic 5 to 6 inches apart and 2 to 3 inches deep (pointy side up). The ideal depth depends on the size of the clove. Plant larger cloves a little deeper than the smaller ones. The goal is to have the top of the clove covered under at least 1 inch of soil. If you are planting in a region where the ground freezes and thaws regularly, you might want to plant a little deeper to keep the cloves from being pushed out of the soil during these temperature swings.
Your cloves should start to emerge early next spring. Ideally, garlic does not sprout until after the worst of winter weather is over. However, I regularly see it pop up as early as January. It should be fine if it sprouts anytime between December and March, and will be ready to harvest in early to mid-July. Happy planting.