It always seems odd to me that about this time each year as I’m just starting to bring in cucumbers and squash and I’m still egging on baby tomatoes and peppers, the garlic is done and ready to be cured. Garlic planting and harvesting in North Alabama is on a schedule all its own. Planted in late October or early November, garlic is ready to harvest right about mid-June.
Around my house, we can easily go through 2-3 large heads of homegrown garlic each week. At $2 for a sleeve of small silverskin heads, that’s about $150 a year in garlic. So this is one pantry staple I grow every year. The large varieties I grow (Red Toch, Lorz Italian and Broadleaf Czech) need about 6-8″ of space in each direction to be happy, so I dedicate about 100 square feet of raised bed to garlic from October to June, which gives me a year’s supply, seed garlic for next year and some to share.
Want to grow your own?
For best success, or if you want to grow specialty varieties like I do, purchase certified disease-free heads from a regional retailer like Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Buying seed garlic this way isn’t cheap, but you can save your best heads from year to year so you don’t need to purchase it again until your productivity starts to flag. Saving the best heads means their cloves will produce high quality garlic heads for you next year.
Many online garden sites will insist you should not grow garlic from the store. There are some reasons why not that are valid: it might carry diseases you really don’t want to get established in your garden, it might be sprayed with sprout inhibitors and they aren’t premium heads. But it’s cheaper, and it will usually work. If you choose to go this route, use heads only from US produced garlic and find the biggest, healthiest ones you can. Why? Because almost all the garlic grown in the US comes from in or near Gilroy, California. These farmers are dead serious about maintaining healthy garlic soil, and they are not going to tolerate diseases getting established, so your chances of disease-free garlic are pretty high.
Sprout inhibitors are just that: they inhibit. It doesn’t meant they won’t sprout, it just means they might take longer or have a lower success rate.
Garlic wants nice, friable soil with good fertility. It’ll grow in almost anything (just check your lawn in spring), but it’ll do better if you keep it happy. In late October, take the heads apart into individual cloves and plant each clove about 2-3″ deep, pointy side up. Go ahead and mulch lightly if you want.
Very little bothers garlic. Some squirrels might dig in your bed to cache nuts and inadvertently unearth your cloves, but mostly you can ignore it. By mid November, you should have young garlic sprouts. They will grow bit then sleep until spring, where they will put on their main growth up to about 24″ tall.
If you plant a variety that sends up flower and seed stalks, chop these off while immature. These are garlic scapes, and are a tasty late spring treat, but will rob energy from the bulb if you allow them to develop.
Garlic is ready to harvest when the individual cloves have separated enough to have their own skins. This is usually when about 1/3 of the top of the plant has died and they are falling over. Not sure? Go ahead and dig one up and eat it. The skins won’t be dried in between the cloves — that happens during curing — but they should be distinctly separate.
If you see little bulblets growing at the bottom of the head, or some of the cloves have started sprouting the next generation, you’re a little too late. Your garlic is still perfectly edible, but it might not store as long. Incidentally, you can plant those bulblets, but it will take them two years to grow into a full head of garlic.
Curing & Saving Seed
Ideally, pick a day when the soil is at least fairly dry. Carefully dig your heads up, knock off the worst of the dirt, then they are ready to cure. You can braid them, tie them up into bunches, or lay them flat on a drying rack. Set them to cure in a place that is low in humidity and moderately warm. I use my basement; it’s climate controlled so the air conditioning makes it drier than outside. Fair warning: it’s going to smell like a lot of garlic wherever you put it. A LOT.
After a few weeks, the outer skins will be dry and papery and the tops fully dried. Unless you have made garlic braids, chop off the tops, trim the roots, and remove the outermost layer of skin to get the worst of the dirt off. Hang heads in mesh sacks like these in a cool dry place. Select the most perfectly formed and robust heads and put those in their own labelled bag, and set those aside to plant in October.
Garlic stores for nearly a year. About April or May, many of them will be sprouting in their storage bags and smell strongly of garlic again. As long as they are not rotting, they are edible… just a bit less tender and tasty.
There’s some digging involved, but few plants are as easy to grow, harvest and store a year’s supply.