Our cabin came with a well situated, already fenced and amended organic garden, which we have done our best to plant and improve upon each summer. Over the years we have planted many varieties of veggies, and two stand out as the easiest to grow by far: Wild Italian “Sylvetta” arugula (which now forms an actual hedge along the garden’s edge!), and garlic. Since the time to purchase and plant seed garlic is fast approaching for those of us in the northern US, I thought I’d share my method in case you would like to try it as well.
In the north, planting garlic in the fall will yield larger, more robust bulbs. The rule of thumb is to plant your garlic 6-8 weeks before your first expected hard frost. In the south, February-March is the best time to plant.
The first thing that you will need is a sunny spot with decent, well-drained soil. Garlic is prone to rot when waterlogged, so make sure you pick a spot where water will not hang around. Till or dig the soil to loosen it, to a depth of at least 6 inches. This will make it easier for the garlic to establish good roots.
Next, you need a good quality seed garlic. You can buy this from a seed company (most have limited quantities and do not ship until September) or at a local farmer’s market. Make sure you pick a variety that will work as seed, and is suited to your climate. I was given an initial handful of a small, purple variety by a local organic farmer, which I have been growing for years now. I actually made up for a shortfall of seed this year (due to a more ambitious planting bed) by planting some cloves that I had from the grocery store! I was lucky with these, since grocery store garlic is not always a variety that is suited to growing in the north and is also sometimes treated to keep it from readily sprouting.
Make your planting holes 4 inches apart and about 2 inches deep.
Place a single clove into each hole, with the root side down and pointed side up.
Cover the cloves with soil, tamp down lightly and water well.
Where there will be frost/sub-freezing temperatures, you will want to top the bed with a good layer of mulch. Garlic cannot survive freezing temps without mulch. I used leaves which are plentiful (and free) here!
In the spring, when all chance of frost has passed, pull off the mulch to reveal your young garlic plants. Keep these weeded, and water sparingly – only about once a week if the weather has been dry. Fertilize as necessary (if you notice the leaves browning before late July).
Around May-June or so, the plants will produce curly garlic “scapes.” Cut these off and use them in soups, salads, stir fry, etc. This will force the plant to put more energy into the bulbs.
Later in the summer (July-August), when you notice that the leaves of the plants are turning brown, take a garden fork and carefully loosen one of the bulbs from the soil. Check to see if it is time to harvest the rest by observing the bulbs. If they have filled out the papery skin, then it’s time!
Lift the remainder of the bulbs carefully with the fork. Do not pull on the greens to harvest–the bulb will be damaged as it comes out of the ground. It is very important to keep the papery skins intact when harvesting. These will protect the cloves in storage.
Once harvested, allow the bulbs to dry a bit in a dry, shady spot. Then brush off the dried dirt – taking care to leave a papery skin covering each bulb, trim the roots, and hang the plants (with the leaves still attached) in a cool, dry place (out of the sun), for about four weeks to cure.
Once cured, you can cut off and compost the tops, and store the garlic bulbs whole, in a cool, dark, dry place. Garlic harvested and stored this way can last up to a year! The refrigerator is too cold and dry, so I keep ours in a mesh bag hung from the ceiling in a dark part of the cellar.
Best of luck with your garlic crop! Be sure to save some of your best bulbs to use for seed next year!