How to Grow Garlic

closeup of garlic bulbs
Delicious homegrown garlic…. freshly harvested!

I’ve been growing garlic in zone 6b, Northern Ohio for about 15 years, give or take a few. I currently grow a few porcelain and purple stripe hardneck garlic varieties. Some were sourced from reputable sellers online, others were “found” varieties.

My current “sourced” garlics are Kyjev and Music. I tried a few others (Transylvanian, Inchillium, Chesnov, to name a few), but they did not do as well for me.

One of the lines of garlic I grow is from plants that had naturalized in a neighbor’s yard from garlic his great (great-great?) grandfather had brought over from Romania/Transylvania area in Europe. I call this line “Coyote Red”.

Another line that I started last year is “Brunswick”. This variety is from a single tiny garlic plant that a former co-worker found growing near a pond while walking in a park in Brunswick, Ohio. We speculate that is was an escapee from a farm somewhere, but who knows?

I’ve been using my own harvest for the following year’s planting for over a decade. An added benefit is that this way I’m selecting for what grows in my backyard microclimate.

My plan for how much to grow: about 50 bulbs for eating (a little under one a week for my household, which ends up usually being too much). Another 50 for sharing with friends and family. This is based on who likes it and experience for how much they want. Some are greedy for it, some “only want a few, not big garlic eaters”. So I know I need to plant about 100 cloves. I know that I can usually get about 5 good cloves out of one head of garlic, on average, so that means 20 bulbs for planting. Add five more for “just in case”. This means I need to plant about 125 cloves of garlic to get enough for both eating and planting. I save the biggest bulbs with the biggest cloves for planting. I keep the bulbs with the next- biggest cloves for my own eating, because I can then swap out the small cloves from the “growing” bulbs for the biggest cloves from the “eating” batch. Family gets the stuff I’m not going to poach for growing.

To grow garlic, it is best to start with bulbs from a reputable seller.  If you live in the north, hardneck varieties will grow best for you. Softneck garlic is a better choice for the south. You may want to experiment with a few varieties at first, to see what types you like best and what grows best for you.

Once you are growing it, you can save the biggest cloves from your harvest for the following year’s planting.

Garlic does best in rich, loose soil that is enriched with plenty of compost. It hates competition, so you will want to keep the bed well weeded.

Here in Northern Ohio, I plant around mid-October, but have planted as late as early November. I plant the garlic about 5 inches deep and six inches apart, in rows six inches apart. (The beds are 4×4 and 4×8).

The garlic will often sprout in both the fall and then again in late winter or very early spring, depending on how many warm days we get. This is fine. Garlic is tough, and will even naturalize if you leave a bulb or two unharvested.

You can pull and eat a few of the the early garlic plants in the spring: this is called “green garlic”.

closeup of garlic scapes
Garlic scapes

Hardneck garlics will send up a flower stalk in late spring or early summer (for me, it’s about the middle of June).  This is known as a garlic scape. The stalk will produce bulbils which are like tiny garlic seeds that will grow to be large bulbs (called rounds) if they are planted like normal garlic cloves. the rounds will become full garlic bulbs in the second year.

The garlic scape should be cut so that the plant will put all its energy into growing the bulb. I wait until the scapes have curled, then harvest them. They will keep for weeks in the fridge, and are delicious sauteed up in a little olive oil.

The garlic leaves will start dying back not long after the plant has gone to scape. I wait until about 3-5 leaves have turned brown and then harvest by pulling the entire plant.

harvested garlic that has been washed and is lying on the grass to dry.
Freshly harvested garlic that has been washed and is lying on the grass to dry.

I wash the bulbs when I pull them (quick swish in a bucket of water), then lay them out on the lawn to dry off. After that I bring them in to the house to dry. Yes, the house smells like garlic, but hey, no vampires around here! I leave the tops on until the stems have dried, then trim them to around an inch from the top of the bulb.

Garlic stores best in cool, dark conditions. I store the dried garlic spread out in a cardboard box in the basement, bring some up and keep it in the cupboard in the kitchen for what I’m using. I’ve had garlic keep fine this way through as far as May/June (just checked my cupboard), but generally speaking, I try to use it up by March.

An additional benefit of garlic in the garden is in edible landscaping. Garlic is an attractive foliage plant and is to my experience highly deer resistant: they don’t like the taste. It will naturalize and spread if you allow it to do so. The bulbs will be smaller from the crowding but you can still eat them.

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