How to Plant Garlic

Reader Contribution by Lynn Byczynski
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As market farmers, we have grown garlic for many years. This month we’ll be planting about 150 pounds of it. As the owners of Seeds from Italy, we also sell garlic for planting. With so much garlic experience, we often are asked for growing advice. Here is our FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) about planting garlic:  

When should I plant garlic? 

Garlic requires a cold treatment to do well, and the biggest, most robust bulbs are produced from a fall planting. Besides, that’s the only time planting stock is readily available. So if you haven’t already ordered your garlic, do it now! Your goal should be to plant within two weeks of the first frost (32°F) so that the cloves develop roots but do not emerge above ground by the time of the first hard freeze (28°F).

How much should I plant? 

That depends on how much garlic you eat. The rule of thumb is that every pound of garlic will produce between four and eight pounds. Buy seed garlic by the pound, not by quantity, because garlic weights vary significantly. We sell an Early Italian White variety similar to what you see in the grocery store that has 10-12 bulbs per pound; we also sell Viola Francese, a huge softneck from Italy that has only four bulbs per pound.

What variety should I grow? 

Garlics fall into two main categories, hardnecks and softnecks. Hardnecks have a small number of large cloves arranged around a central stem. We offer a beautiful one called Rossa (Red) di Sulmona. The cloves are easy to peel and the taste is more assertive. Softnecks have lots of small cloves arranged in layers like an artichoke. Softneck cloves are harder to peel and have a milder flavor. Softnecks store better than hardnecks.

In general, hardnecks are better for cold winters and softnecks are better for mild winters. But that is really a gross generalization and the fact is that garlic is very adaptable. You may be able to grow both types, which would give you an ideal combination of flavors and storage life. Ask your gardening friends what varieties they grow for starter recommendations, but don’t be afraid to try something unfamiliar. You’ll find there are literally hundreds of named varieties, but recent DNA analysis shows there are really only 10 distinct types. They can behave quite differently based on growing conditions. Here’s an article I wrote for Growing for Market about this research a couple of years ago. 

Where should I buy garlic for planting? 

Planting stock is bulbs of garlic that look just like the table garlic you can buy in the supermarket. However, much of that garlic is imported from China or grown in a mild climate so is not necessarily adapted to winter weather. It may or may not work for you. You can plant garlic purchased at farmers market from a local grower. You also can purchase garlic online from many seed suppliers, though they do tend to sell out early. Our business, Seeds from Italy, has three varieties still available as of this writing.

Where should I plant? 

Garlic likes friable, well-drained soil with plenty of nutrients. Loosen the soil deeply and work in some organic fertilizer based on previous soil tests. (You have done a soil test, haven’t you? If not, contact your local Extension service for directions and, when you send in the soil sample, request recommendations for growing vegetables.) We till in organic matter such as spoiled hay or grass clippings a month or so before planting then, right before we plant, we spread alfalfa pellets (which are available at farm stores; they are sold as horse feed.)

How should I plant? 

Break the garlic bulbs into cloves the day before or day of planting, but no earlier because the cloves can dry out. Inspect the cloves and remove any that are tiny, have blue mold, or look too dried out. Plant only the firm cloves.

Make a furrow about 3 inches deep and place the cloves in it, six inches apart. Be sure to plant the cloves pointed end up. If you plant them upside down, they will grow but will be misshapen and smaller than they should be. Make your rows 10-12 inches apart. Rake soil back over the cloves, so that they are covered by 2 inches of soil.

If it’s been really dry and no rain is forecast, water the bed well.

Finally, mulch with 3-4 inches of organic material such as straw, alfalfa hay, or grass clippings. You can mulch immediately after planting, or wait a few weeks.

That’s it. Your garlic is ready for winter. To find out what you can expect next year, read our article on spring and summer garlic care.