Garlic is a hardy perennial vegetable. There are two main types of garlic, softneck and hardneck (sometimes called “stiff neck”) forms. Softneck varieties generally produce more cloves per bulb and store longer than hardneck types. Hardneck garlic produces a stiff central flowering stem, while softneck varieties generally do not produce this stem, making the leaves more suitable for braiding. Hardneck varieties are generally more cold tolerant than softneck types and are often considered “gourmet” garlic.
Elephant garlic is a large, mild type of garlic that produces a large bulb with very few, large cloves. It is actually more closely related to leeks than to garlic. Elephant garlic is somewhat less hardy than standard garlic and can sometimes develop a sharp or bitter flavor when grown in extremely cold climates.
How to Plant
Garlic needs fertile, loose, well-drained soil with lots of organic matter and a pH between 6 and 7.
The best crops of garlic are planted in the fall and harvested in summer the following year. Garlic survives bitterly cold winter underground, grows quickly when the weather warms in the spring and makes bulbs in the summer. In northern areas, plant cloves in fall 4 to 6 weeks before the ground freezes. This gives the plant time to develop roots and gives plants a head start on growth. Where winters are milder, garlic can be planted from October through January.
Garlic can also be planted in spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. Growth will generally not be as vigorous as fall planting, and harvest will be reduced and somewhat later. In short season areas, if bulbs are not large in size the first summer, a second season of growth may be needed.
Before planting, separate garlic bulbs into individual cloves. Sow individual cloves with the root or blunt end down and the pointed end up. Where winters are mild, plant cloves 1 inch deep. In cold areas, plant them 2 to 4 inches deep. Space the cloves 4 to 8 inches apart. (The exception is Elephant Garlic which is sent as large, individual clove and should be planted 4 to 6 inches deep and spaced 8 to 10 inches apart).
Mulch the garlic rows lightly immediately after planting. Garlic has no problem growing through an inch of mulch in spring. Mulch also helps to reduce weed problems. In cold areas, mulching with an additional 4 to 6 inches of chopped leaves or straw will keep the soil warmer so the root growth can continue longer.
In spring, fertilize moderately with a high nitrogen fertilizer. Garlic is shallow rooted so it benefits from several fertilizer applications through the season. Once bulbs begin to form, discontinue fertilizing to get the best quality bulbs. Keep the soil moist during the growing period, but water less frequently as harvest approaches to avoid molding and staining, plus the bulbs will store better.
Garlic does not compete well with weeds, so ensure that weed control is good during the season. When cultivating to remove weeds, be careful and cultivate only shallowly, as garlic roots do not penetrate the soil deeply. Maintaining mulch around the plants will help to reduce weed problems.
When there are still 4 to 6 green leaves remaining on the plant, check the bulbs to see if they are ready to harvest. Each leaf represents a layer of skin on the bulb, so if there are no green leaves when you harvest, the result may be exposed cloves with no skin layers covering them. Loosen soil with a fork to remove bulbs, brush off the soil and move them out of direct sunlight. They may be either tied in small bundles and hung up to dry in a cool, shaded, well-ventilated location or spread out in single layers on screens or slatted shelves. After curing for 2 to 3 weeks, hang the dried bunches in a cool, shaded location. You may also cut the stalks off 1/2 inch above the bulb and store them in mesh sacks with good air circulation on all sides.
Perfect storage conditions are 45 to 55 degrees F. at 50% relative humidity. Storage below 40 degrees F. actually makes garlic sprout.