Healthy, homegrown garlic can be enjoyed in four wonderful ways — as young or mature bulbs, scapes and greens. Incredibly easy to grow, this superfood even deters pests from the rest of your garden, and if you let a few plants flower, the stunning spherical blooms help to support our struggling bees.
How to grow garlic
To grow garlic, plant large cloves in fall. Buy local organic bulbs from a farmers’ market, nursery or seed supplier. Avoid imported garlic, as it may not be suitable for your growing conditions and is often treated with sprouting inhibitors. You can plant garlic for as long as the soil can be worked in the fall, although aiming to have it in the ground before Halloween is a good goal, even in warm areas where I garden in British Columbia.
Gently separate garlic bulbs into cloves just before planting, leaving the skin on the cloves. Plant two inches (5 cm) deep and 8 inches (20 cm) apart with the pointy tip up. Don’t bother planting the smallest cloves — save those for supper. Big cloves grow into big bulbs and are your best bet for a good crop.
Garlic is a heavy feeder because it grows for such a long time. Lean soil results in tiny garlic bulbs — not a judicious use of garden space for nine months. Improve the soil with abundant organic matter, adding an all-purpose, organic fertilizer when planting. As green shoots emerge, feed every other week with kelp or fish fertilizer. If you wish, mulch your garlic crop with chopped leaves or straw — a layer of mulch will keep it snug and weed free.
Many varieties of garlic (Allium sativum) are available to home gardeners: ‘Evans’, ‘Music’, ‘Spanish’, ‘Red Russian’, ‘Roja’, ‘Korean’, ‘Sicilian Gold’ (a softneck type, perfect for braiding), ‘Persian Star’ and more. Garlic is perennial, but is usually treated as an annual. It thrives in sun and needs rich, well-drained soil. Deer resistant, it can be grown in unfenced areas in deer-prone areas.
4 ways to harvest garlic
- In warm areas of B.C., snip some of the green strappy leaves from fall to early spring to use like garlic chives or green onions. Always take less than a third from each plant to allow it to continue growing vigorously.
- In spring, tug out some of the young, scallion-like bulbs.
- In June, pick the scapes (see “Great scapes”).
- In midsummer, pull the plants to harvest the bulbs. Usually by July 1 it’s time to stop watering your garlic so that the bulbs cure a little in the ground. Gardeners have differing ways of deciding exactly when it’s bulb harvest time. Some people wait until two-thirds of the plant has yellowed; for others, seeing three discoloured strappy leaves is the signal to harvest. Whatever indicator you choose, don’t leave garlic bulbs in the ground any longer than that, as they might begin to split and won’t store well. To cure, hang your bulbs out of the sun in an airy spot for three weeks.
While most gardeners choose hardneck garlic varieties over softneck garlic, both yield fantastic returns. Hardneck garlic sends up a rigid central stock; softneck remains pliable and is suitable for braiding (and is also considered the best choice for storing). One softneck clove planted in fall produces a sturdy bulb of up to 24 cloves. And each hardneck clove can multiply into 12, with the added bonus of a scape — the curly stem that leads to the newly developing seed head—which can be snapped off for salads, pesto and stir-fries. In fact, you can use the crunchy, curly scapes anywhere you’d use garlic bulbs; the flavour is a little milder so add extra if you like. Harvest scapes around mid-June when they have formed one loop or two; removing them from the plant helps it to direct energy to the bulb below. Leave a few to flower and provide fall greens.
Resist snapping off scapes or harvesting bulbs from a few of your garlic plants: they will bloom spectacularly and support the bees. Then seeds, called bulbils, will form and can be planted; they require two years in the garden to form bulbs.
Lastly, the thick flower stems will die back by September. Simply pull this debris away, and you’ll find a chive-like growth of garlicky greens coming up for fall and winter snipping.