Growing Great Garlic

The first garlic I saw growing in a garden was at an Iowa City Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. We were touring the farm in March, when the transplants were still in the greenhouse and the only visible green in the garden was a lone bed of skinny, spiky-leaved vegetation that brought to mind mutant onions. We asked the farmer about this row of early spring growth. “Oh, that’s our garlic,” she said.

Oh, of course. “Garlic! We want to grow garlic!” we said.

“Homegrown garlic is the best!” the farmer told us. “Put some in when planting time rolls around this fall!”

What? Fall? No homegrown garlic for an entire year? We were devastated. But we regrouped, and when fall arrived we celebrated by putting a couple hundred garlic seed cloves into the ground. The harvest was worth the wait, the garlic was the best we ever ate, and we’ve been growing garlic ever since.

We’re up to 20,000 heads a year now, which we still put into the ground by hand. Planting this much garlic always feels like a party to me. Friends and family come out to the farm, and for a week we put clove after clove into the ground until suddenly we’re done. Then we pretty much leave the garlic patch alone (save spring feeding and scape cutting) until the next July, when we come back to harvest our bounty. That’s the great thing about garlic: It’s a no-muss, no-fuss plant. The hardest part is getting it in and out of the ground.


How to Choose Garlic for Growing

There are two basic types of garlic: hardneck and softneck. The garlic sold at grocery stores is primarily softneck, which is commonly grown in California or overseas. Softnecks are a warmer weather garlic and not quite as flavorful as hardneck garlic. Hardneck garlic is what you’ll often find in Midwest and other northern gardens. Hardneck tolerates cooler weather better and thus can be grown in northern regions with ease. There are many varieties of hardneck, including heirloom varieties, with a whole range of flavor from mild to downright spicy.

Garlic can be grown from seeds or cloves, but seeds take 2 years to produce a garlic plant, and most gardeners grow their garlic from cloves. Garlic adapts to the environment in which it is grown. That means that a great place for you to buy garlic for planting is from a producer somewhere close to home. Grocery stores are not great sources for garlic seed, since the garlic in stores is usually sprayed with a chemical to keep it from sprouting. Farmers’ markets are my choice for sourcing garlic for planting (as well as eating!). At markets you can often find vendors who grow and eat several different varieties, so you can learn about the different varieties from a person who has firsthand experience with them. We got turned on to Spanish Roja (a very strong, hot, and spicy variety) through a long conversation with a market grower.

The two garlic varieties we plant the most are German Extra Hardy and Music. German Extra Hardy is an easy-to-grow variety with creamy white bulbs with streaks of rosy purple. It’s just beautiful and tastes everything that garlic should taste. It’s also fairly popular among growers here in Southeast Iowa, so it’s pretty easy to find seed. Another popular variety is Music, which is fairly similar in taste and appearance but tends to have fewer and larger cloves. Both are reliable producers, which is especially nice if you’re just beginning.

Whatever variety of garlic you choose to plant, keep this tip in mind: Bigger cloves grow into bigger bulbs. Look for nice, big bulbs with nice, big cloves when choosing garlic for planting.

How to Plant Your Garlic

October is usually the best time to plant garlic in the Midwest. Since Iowa can be rainy and wet in the fall, soil conditions can make planting tricky—one marshy year we didn’t get garlic in the ground until mid-November. Our goal is to get it in at least one week before the first hard freeze (mid-20s) but not much sooner than that. In our experience, we get bigger heads with this schedule. There are gardeners who would argue with me on this point, and some plant their garlic even a month in advance of the first hard freeze. Whatever your inclination (early fall or late fall), you really want your garlic seed cloves to have a chance to root down before the soil freezes up around them.

More important than the exact timing of planting is the site of planting. You want to put your garlic in a sunny site with fertile, well-drained soil. You absolutely do not want your garlic sitting in a puddle at any point during the winter or early spring—soggy garlic will rot rather than grow. We plant our garlic into raised beds. You’ll probably be buying your planting garlic in the form of bulbs, so your first step is to gently break apart the bulb into individual cloves. Do not peel the cloves! Just separate them from the bulb. You can space the cloves 3 to 6 inches apart in rows that are 12 to 24 inches apart. Garlic cloves that have more room tend to grow into bigger heads, so if you have the space, give it to them. Be sure to plant the cloves 2 inches deep and pointy end up.

Once you’ve closed the soil around your garlic, mulch with a couple of inches of straw. The straw insulates and protects the cloves over the winter and helps keep down weeds in the following spring. Another trick to keep down the weeds is to layer five sheets of newspaper along each side of your planted cloves and then put down the straw. The layers of newspaper block light and keep weed seeds from germinating, which will greatly cut down on your spring weed population. Just be sure not to put the newspaper directly over your planted garlic!

Garlic is a heavy feeder, which means you’ll want to plant it in a good loam enriched with plenty of organic matter or compost. If you go the fertilizer route, look for a vegetable fertilizer that contains a wide range of micronutrients as well as the usual NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium). Since we’re organic gardeners who happen to have worms (I mean, raise worms), we incorporate worm castings into our garlic plot. Organic fish emulsion is also a good route to go. Whatever nutrient source you choose, feed your garlic plot in the fall before planting.

How to Care for Your Garlic Come Spring

In the early spring (early March), check under your straw every few days until you see the first sign of green. At that point, brush the straw off your garlic sprouts so they can see the sun. Once you’ve pulled up your mulch, your garlic is visibly growing, and the soil has warmed up a big, give the garlic another feeding (we usually do this in April). It’s waking up after a long winter’s nap, and it’s a hungry plant!

In May and June, the garlic plant sends up its scape, which is a curly stem that ends in a seed pod. This scape diverts energy from the root (bulb), and so you want to cut off the scapes to get the best bulbs. They’re easy to harvest—just clip them off at their base, where they are growing up out of the plant. Garlic scapes are edible and make tasty additions to sautés, soups, and sauces.

How to Harvest Your Garlic

It’s time to harvest the bulbs themselves when the plant’s foliage starts to brown and the bulbs start to look good sized (you may have to scrape away the dirt at the base of the plant to get an idea of the bulb size). In Iowa, harvest time is usually in early July. If the paper on the bulbs starts to dry up and disintegrate, you’ve left your bulbs in the ground too long! After digging up the bulbs, let them cure for several days in a warm, dark, well-ventilated room until the outer layers of skin on the bulb dry into the thin, papery layers you typically see on garlic in the store. Don’t try to trim the roots or knock the soil off until the bulbs are dry. Once they are dry, store them at 40-50 degrees F. A root cellar or cool, dark pantry is ideal. When stored correctly, garlic can keep through the entire winter and into the next spring, just in time to see your new sprouts pop up.

We’ve grown a lot of garlic in the several years since our visit to the Iowa City CSA. It’s one of our favorite plants to grow. And if you’re entertaining the idea of growing garlic in your own garden, I’ll say to you what the CSA farmer said to me: Homegrown garlic is the best. Go for it! And here’s some good news—it’s almost October. So if you get going now, you won’t have to wait a whole extra year to plant. Your garden awaits!


This blog post is a revamped article originally written for The Iowa Source. To read about the potential health benefits of garlic, check out Garlic for What Ails You, also written by Jocelyn Engman and available online at The Iowa Source.