Garlic Planting Tips

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What: I tend to plant hardneck varieties of garlic as I enjoy their pungent flavor. These plants will put out a flower stalk sometime in June that will need to be removed. Softneck varieties which offer a milder flavor tend to grow a bit better in warmer planting regions and they can be easily be braided for storage and beauty. Use the best of the best. I plant my largest cloves from my largest bulbs. I separate out any small cloves and use them for eating or I plant them in their own section and raid that bed in the spring when I am feeling peckish for green garlic.

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When: In days gone by, the Northeast would plant bulbs in late September/early October. With later starts to winter and its deep cold, this timing has gradually moved further into autumn. Now I find I can plant from late October into early November. The point is you want to get the cloves into the ground before it freezes, while allowing time for setting good roots. These roots will help to hold the garlic in the ground through the frost heaving of winter as well as hasten growth as spring thaws and the soils move again. A rule of thumb is to plant a few weeks after fall foliage peaks. You don’t want to plant too early as the garlic can begin to sprout and grow. Shoots that grow more than a couple inches above the soil will likely be damaged over the winter. You want “roots but no shoots”.

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Where: Plant in a well-draining location that has not had any alliums (think garlic, onions, shallots) for the past three years. Good rotation practices help prevent problems with undesirable molds and disease. Other than that, garlic is easy to grow and relatively pest free. Some growers guard against planting garlic where brassicas have grown the previous year. Some study, somewhere, demonstrated inhibited growth for garlic bulbs planted following brassicas. Others insist that following brassicas with alliums helps to cleanse the soil. I’ve had fellow gardeners swear not to plant garlic following peas or beans. I have actually made a practice of following the newly replenished bean field with alliums. If you ask five growers how to plant garlic you will get 5 different answers, maybe more. You do what’s best for you as long as you are staggering your allium plantings by at least three years.

Assuming you have plenty of land and plenty of lead time, some growers recommend cultivating and turning under a cover crop prior to planting. Buckwheat is a favorite as it is easy to turn under several weeks before planting your garlic. This helps to reduce weed pressure while returning nutrients and improving soil tilth as the cover crop breaks down.

However you do it, you will want to prepare the soil by making sure your soil has lots of organic matter and good drainage, some well-rotted manure or compost is a great soil amendment for garlic. Garlic will not thrive in compact soils.

Garlic likes an average pH level, around 6 or 7. The lands here in Vermont tend to be somewhat acidic but using compost can mitigate low pH while adding organic matter to the soil for better root penetration.

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How: Break apart the heads carefully without bruising the cloves.  I don’t break open the bulbs until I’m ready to plant as this is another vector for rot or damage to the cloves prior to planting.

Plant the cloves, 4 – 5 inches deep and 5 to 6 inches apart with the pointed side up and root side down. Cover with soil and pat down. When planting a large amount of garlic I go through the whole bed making adequately spaced holes with some sort of dibbler. You can use a stick, old stake, the handle of a garden tool or a fancy, yet pretty piece of wood made specifically for this purpose. It will often have markings to measure depth on it.

When you are done planting mulch the rows with 3-4 inches of mulch. Mulch can consist of material you may have readily available — straw, leaf litter, compost. I use compost as it gets the garlic started in the spring and I likely won’t need to fertilize over the growing season. You can water the beds to settle the cloves though I generally don’t water deeply this time of year unless the soil is exceptionally dry and there is no rain in sight.

One can use any number of green manures in conjunction with garlic. I have oversown emerging garlic with buckwheat, clovers or oats. I have also planted into beds of late-sown oats that are about a foot tall or less. When the frost comes, these winter-killed plants will form a nice mulch layer to hold the garlic and soils in place. Come spring I can spread compost right on top at my leisure with minimal weeds sprouting.

Spreading a layer of straw over the entire bed once the ground freezes can help to prevent heaving of the cloves over the winter. It can also provide a wonderful nesting area for rodents so be sure the ground is frozen or well on its way before inadvertently providing a wonderful shelter for your local garden pests.

Mulch layers can also be removed in the spring after the threat of a hard freeze is over to help the soil warm up, or it can be left in place to help with weed control and preserve soil moisture. 

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Storage: The garlic that doesn’t make the cut for planting will end up in your pantry. Be sure wherever you store your garlic, that it is cool enough and dark enough. Garlic keeps best at 32-40 degrees with a relative humidity of 60-70. Light and even slight warmth will cause your garlic to break dormancy as if it were early spring. The garlic will start to put out little roots and begin to develop a shoot. You will notice this when you cut into garlic. If you see your garlic sprouting in this way, take the time to peel and chop and use the garlic or steep in oil and store for a short while in the fridge. (Be aware of the potential for botulism and use up this oil quickly.) Once the garlic breaks dormancy it is only a matter of time before it becomes less than desirable or even unfit to eat.

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Planting After Harvest: Toward the end of July you will harvest your garlic, giving you a nice new space to plant another crop. I often follow garlic with spinach, beets, carrots, salad turnips, daikon radish, or lettuces/mustards. These crops have enough time to grow to size and will do well in the soil with very little amendment.

Popular Gardening Resources:

Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engeland.

Cedar Circle Farm website

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Why: Simply put, garlic is medicine. Medicine for the body, for the earth and for the soul. The anti-bacterial properties make it a go-to remedy for colds and the ailments of winter. The flavor is a fantastic addition to savory soups, sauces and stir-fries. The culinary uses are too numerous to name. Planted as a companion to other plants, alliums can deter some pests like carrot leaf fly and slugs, (though I have seen slugs devour baby leeks).

Christine Jacobson