Garlic is a bulb like tulips.   Garlic is member of the allium family – onions, shallots, chives, and leeks and is native to northeastern Iran and central Asia.  It has been used as a medicine and for food flavoring for thousands of years.  The aroma of simmering garlic is impossible to miss.  The flavor is divine.

Today, China produces 80% of the world’s supply, with India as second at 5%.  The United States is ranked 10th, but grows only 1% of China’s total!   Much of garlic production in the US is in Gilroy, California.  The city has its own celebration –

The Gilroy Garlic Festival: It is held the last full weekend every July.  Boy, do they have something to celebrate! Not only does garlic taste amazing, but it has tremendous health benefits:

  1. Boosts immune system
  2. Reduces blood pressure
  3. Lowers bad cholesterol levels
  4. Improves brain function
  5. Combats allergies
  6. Fights fungal infections
  7. Keeps bones strong
  8. Promotes longevity
  9. Detoxifies heavy metals
  10. Improves physical performance

The garlic bulb is normally divided into sections called cloves.  The clove is what you plant and eat.  The leaves and flower (bulbils) on the head (spathe) as also are edible.

It is best to buy bulbs from a catalog or garden center, and when you do, be sure to buy the large bulbs of each variety you plant.  Garlic is grown as an annual, but is actually a perennial.  You can buy garlic that is softneck or hardback.

Softneck: What you usually buy in grocery stores. The neck has been cut off. Softneck stems neck is softer and you can braid. Hardback – where the real flavor is. Has fewer cloves. Cloves are larger and easier to peel.

Hardback garlic flowers produce a cluster of miniature bulbs (not a true seed but will when planted produce a bulbil, or a small bulb called a “round”.)

If I have not done a complete job of harvesting, or have left the garlic to flower, I find that the next season in that area will produce a garlic round.  A round is like a bouillon onion and does not have cloves.  I use this green garlic as I would green onions, but they do have a mild garlic flavor.

There are many varieties to choose from. Some of my favorites are German Red, Spanish Roja, Romanian and Korean red, and Inchelium Red.  Try different flavors and see what you think!

Garlic likes full sun and well-drained, loose soil.  Garlic does best in sandy/clay/loam which crumbles easily in your hand, and likes a high-organic content.  Do NOT use a high nitrogen fertilizer. A good 16-16-16 is best.  Like a pH of 4.5 (acid) to 8.3 (alkaline) so it can grow in a wide variety of soil.  Garlic plants should be planted closely; space so when the bulbs are fully mature, they are apart from the neighbor bulb.   Proper spacing when planting helps keep weeds down.

Garlic can be planted successfully in climate zones 4-9.  I Plant in fall (3 inches deep) around late September to mid October with the pointed end UP. The idea is to get the roots established before the real cold hits.  Not all is lost if you plant in the spring.  The biggest spring planting problem is that many places have sold out and you cannot get your favorites!  Elephant garlic should be planted deeper (about 6 inches depth.) 

Garlic needs a period of cold to succeed, like 30- 60 degrees.  A few days below 50 degrees is ok.  In the colder weather, more mulch is needed.  The mulch helps regulate the changes in temperatures and it helps limit weeds the next spring.   Lots of mulch is good, and it is surprising to see the garlic push though.   Garlic with good cover of snow survives and keeps growing.

Garlic hates weeds, so keep out the competition!  Garlic is a companion plant to enhance strawberries, tomatoes and cabbage. Garlic may hinder the growth of peas, beans asparagus, so don’t plant closely to these vegetables. Garlic plants can suffer from allium leaf miner and white rot.  Use floating row covers.

Soil that has been composted or had manure for a previous crop should not require any more fertilizer, so do not give more fertilizer during growing season.

Harvesting Garlic

 Do not wait too long to harvest.  Keeping garlic in the ground will cause the bulbs to dry out, split, and in general, not be as good.  Keeping them in the ground after they are ready will not make the cloves bigger.

It is time to harvest when the lower third to half of the leaves start to turn brown.  I usually break off the flower so it does not go to “seed”.  A good way also is dig up a few to see.  Different varieties have different harvest dates and may vary by weeks. 

  • Use a pitchfork or spading fork to loosen the soil, then you can pull out the entire plant. 
  • Do not let your bulbs stay in the sun or store in a hot location as it will dry them quickly. 
  • The whole plant should be dried out, which many take two-three weeks. 
  • Do not wash your bulbs as it is not good to expose to water. 
  • After drying, store them in containers or bags that have a lot of circulation and in a temperature of 50 to 70 degrees.   If it gets hotter, the faster they dry out and lose flavor.  A humidity range of 50 to 60% is best. Over 60% will cause mold. (Moldy ones need to be tossed away.)
  • Save the biggest cloves (bulbs) to plant for the next year.  Bigger cloves grow bigger bulbs.

Try your hand at garlic this year for a new adventure in gardening!