It is hard to believe that it’s almost October. This year has been especially challenging for vegetable gardeners. My clean and well-planned May garden looks like something from a botanical horror show now. I dread the hours of cleanup it will take to get the garden ready for planting. The one motivating factor to getting it cleaned up in the next few weeks is that I will be ready to plant garlic by the mid-October planting window. Garlic is one of the easier things to grow, and I think it deserves a place in all vegetable gardens.
I’m the kind of cook that believes garlic belongs in every meal and that you can almost never overuse garlic in a recipe. If you use it as much as I do, you know how disappointing it can be to pull the papery skins off a store-bought bulb only to reveal a multitude of undersized cloves. I have had a fair amount of success growing all types of garlic and have enough to use and replant each year.
Softneck types such as Artichoke and Silverskin are best adapted to our more temperate climate and can flourish with our erratic winter temperatures. Silverskin is the type most commonly found in grocery stores due to the bulbs’ long storage life. The softnecks rarely produce a flower stalk and can be easily braided.
Hardneck types, including Purple Stripe, Porcelain, and Rocambole, do well for me despite the recommendation that they generally do better in areas with long, colder winters. I personally prefer the spicier taste of hardneck types and the additional benefit of the scape, or undeveloped flower structure, that can be used in cooking.
Elephant garlic is not a true garlic but a type of leek that produces 3-5 large cloves per bulb. I have managed to grow some massive elephant types at home. Unfortunately, I find the taste to be almost bitter and thus not as desirable. It does redeem itself with a delectable scape and the wow factor at harvest.
Site and Soil Requirements
Garlic, like most vegetables, grows best in full sun and light, well-drained soil. Heavy clay soils tend to produce small or misshapen bulbs. Regular watering (1” per week) from planting to harvest is required — those small bulbs result from dry soil conditions. Even more water may be required if you are planting in raised beds or in garden soil that is particularly light and quick draining.
Garlic is a heavy feeder, so plan to incorporate a pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet prior to planting. An additional two pounds of fertilizer should be applied when shoots are 4 to 6 inches tall. In early March side dress the garlic with about a pound of ammonium nitrate, 34-0-0 fertilizer per 100 square feet. Avoid fertilizing after the first week of April to prevent delayed bulbing.
Garlic has a very shallow root system and does not compete well with weeds. Regular hand pulling, light cultivation or hoeing of weeds are the only viable methods for weed control in a bed of garlic. I stick to hand pulling to avoid damage to the shallow roots.
Purchase garlic from a reputable source; don’t attempt planting grocery store garlic. Select the larger outer cloves; smaller cloves will equate smaller bulbs upon harvest. Leave the papery coverings on the cloves and plant them 2 inches deep, pointed end up, with a 6-8 inch spacing between plants.
Garlic will begin to bulb as the days get longer in May. Leaves will begin to brown in late May — early June, indicating bulb maturity. Stop irrigation during this time to prevent discoloration and rot and watch the color of the leaves. When some have browned — but not all — loosen the soil and gently remove your crop. No pulling them out by the tops! Cure bulbs out of the sun in good air circulation with the leaves left on. You will enjoy that flavor all year.