by Matt Gibson
Garlic is an essential pantry standby that everyone should keep stocked in excess, so you should consider growing your own. It’s a must have in the kitchen, but garlic has many other practical uses that may be surprising to learn. First of all, garlic is incredibly healthy. The main component of garlic is allicin, which boasts antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial, and antibiotic properties. Garlic is great for heart health, circulation, cholesterol balance, immune support, and lowering blood pressure. It is highly nutritious and low in calories.
Garlic can also be used to treat acne, cold sores, athlete’s foot and common colds. You can use garlic as a pesticide and a mosquito repellant. It can also be used as a glue and sealant, as a household cleaner and a surface de-icer. Garlic has been used by humans for hundreds of years for a variety of medicinal purposes, and folklorically, it is even believed to hold magical powers that can ward off evil spirits and vampires.
There’s no denying garlic’s usefulness as well as its ability to improve just about any savory recipe you can think of. It’s also incredibly easy to grow garlic right in your own backyard. The real question to ask is, why spend money on garlic at the grocery store when you can start growing your own at home? Here is everything you need to know to start doing just that.
Types of Garlic
There are two distinct types of garlic: softneck and hardneck. Softneck garlic is the type that you have most likely purchased many times from the produce department of your favorite grocery store. Softneck garlic grows in bulbs that consist of many cloves. The bulb is covered in many layers of skin that are similar to thin pieces of parchment. The outer layer of cloves are the largest as well as the strongest in both odor and flavor. The cloves become smaller in size as well as milder and sweeter toward the center of the bulb.
There are several different types of softneck garlic, the most popular of which are the silverskin and artichoke varieties. Silverskin garlic is known for being very flavorful as well as pungent. The cloves can be dried or stored in airtight containers, which will keep the cloves fresh for culinary use for nearly a year. Artichoke garlic is slightly milder than the silverskin variety, producing large cloves that can be kept for up to eight months. Artichoke garlic has fewer cloves per bulb than silverskin, and sometimes it has purple streaks or spots on its skin.
Hardneck garlic gets is name from the very firm stalk that protrudes from the top of the bulb. The hardneck varieties of garlic produce many tiny cloves, all practically identical to the parent clove. The four main types of hardneck garlic on the market are rocambole, porcelain, elephant, and purple stripe.
Rocambole garlic is easy to peel and has a rich and full-bodied flavor profile. Rocambole plants produce only one set of cloves, which keep for up to six months. Porcelain garlic produces four large cloves per plant and is comparable to rocambole in flavor. The cloves can be stored and used for up to four months after harvesting. Elephant garlic is often confused with porcelain, as they both produce very large cloves. Elephant garlic, however, has a very mild taste compared to other varieties of garlic, and it’s used in culinary settings as a vegetable rather than a seasoning, flavorant, or herb. Purple stripe garlic is excellent for baking, and this variety is recognizable due to the purple stripes that adorn its papery sheaths. Purple stripe garlic can be used up to six months after harvesting.
That’s a lot of garlic options to choose from, to be sure. If you are a true garlic lover, you may want to try your hand at growing all of these varieties so that you can experiment with each of them in the kitchen. If you’re just looking to grow the type of garlic that is most commonly found in the supermarket, artichoke is the variety you’ll want to look for. If you were to pick just one other kind to try, we’d recommend purple stripe for hardneck and silverskin for soft.
Growing Conditions for Garlic
Garlic requires full sunlight exposure and rich, well-drained soil that contains lots of organic matter. A sandy, clay loam soil is ideal, but garlic will grow in most soil types as long as sufficient nutrients and proper drainage are provided. Soil pH should be between 5.5 and 7.
How to Plant Garlic
First and foremost, it’s best not to try to plant cloves from a batch of garlic that you’ve purchased from the grocery store. These are often treated with chemicals that can keep the garlic from sprouting. Instead, purchase garlic seeds from a nursery, garden center, or trustworthy online source. Garlic seed can be a bit expensive, but keep in mind that each clove will produce an entire head of garlic and that the yields can be stored and used for extended periods—as well as dried and kept even longer if necessary.
Plant garlic in the fall, four or six weeks before the ground freezes, in a location that hasn’t recently been used to grow garlic or any other plants from the onion (allium) family. Prep the soil by loosening it to eight inches deep and stirring in organic, slow-release, granular fertilizer. Plant individual garlic cloves with all of their papery shells intact two inches deep, with the pointy ends facing upward. Place cloves two to four inches apart in rows that are 10 to 14 inches apart. A 10-foot row of garlic plants should yield a whopping five pounds of garlic bulbs in a growing season. Water garlic gently, and top the beds or containers off with a healthy four- to six-inch layer of straw or light mulch.
Though fall planting is recommended, garlic can also be planted in the spring following the same instructions as for fall. Plant garlic in the springtime as early as the soil can be worked.
Care of Garlic
Cut off flower shoots that emerge to prevent a reduction in bulb size. Don’t wait for the scapes to become too large before removing them. (You can snip them over food as a seasoning like chives or use in stir-fries.) Scapes should be removed as soon as they are four to six inches in length.
Garlic is a heavy eater, so you will want to feed your plants early and often with a fertilizer that is high in nitrogen throughout the growing season. Water every three to five days if there are no prolonged rains. Garlic does not like competition, so be sure to keep your growing site clear of weeds and any other plants that may compete with garlic for nutrients and water.
Homegrown garlic is typically ready for harvest around seven or eight months after planting. You’ll know that your garlic is ready for harvesting when the leaves begin to turn brown and the flowering stems start to soften. Use a gardening fork to carefully pull the bulbs up from the ground so that you don’t damage the roots in the process.
If your garlic was planted just below the surface of the soil, you may be able to harvest the bulbs simply by pulling the leaves upward, freeing the bulbs from the ground in the process. Once you’ve got your garlic harvested, check out our guide to storing it for future use.
Garden Pests and Diseases
As garlic is a natural pest repellent, there’s not much to worry about when it comes to bugs ruining your crops. Garlic is, however, susceptible to white rot. Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to avoid white rot other than rotating your crops and cleaning up the grow site. If white rot is a problem in your area, you may want to try growing your garlic in containers so that large areas of soil are not contaminated.
Aside from white rot, keep an eye out for other common issues that plague plants in the onion family, such as botrytis, leaf blight, thrips, downy mildew, and purple blotch. Most of these issues will rear their heads due to insufficient drainage or overly rainy, waterlogged conditions.
Want to Learn More About Growing Garlic?
Are you a more of a visual learner?
Check out this in-depth guide to growing and harvesting garlic in the fall or spring:
This video is another comprehensive guide to growing garlic, but with a focus on fall planting:
Watch this video for a tutorial on how to grow, harvest, and store garlic:
Here are more helpful websites:
Farmer’s Almanac covers Planting Garlic
Better Homes and Gardens covers Growing Garlic: garlic plants, how to grow & when to harvest
Burpee covers Growing Garlic
Care2 covers 12 Unusual Uses for Garlic
Gardener’s Supply Company covers How to Grow Garlic
Good Housekeeping covers How to Grow Garlic
Grow A Good Life covers 7 Tips for Growing Great Garlic
Hudson Valley Garlic Festival covers Varieties of Garlic