Is a vegetable garden complete without garlic? For those who love this aromatic bulb, Master Gardener Susie Everding reveals the secrets of a bountiful and delicious harvest.

Know Your Garlic

Garlic is a member of the onion family (Alliaceae) and is related to leeks, onions, shallots, and chives. There are two main types – soft neck and hardneck, each with particular characteristics:

Hard neck

  • Very hardy in northern climates
  • Few, but large cloves
  • Does not store well
  • Has scapes

Soft neck

  • Great for southern hot climates
  • Many small cloves
  • Stores well
  • Rarely has scapes
Image credit: dakotagarlic.com

Garlic aficionados will want to explore the many varieties of garlic available within these two groups, each with their own subtle taste differences. Susie prefers hard neck varieties, with fewer cloves, for a bit less work in the kitchen!

Fall Planting

Planting is typically done in our area in late October or early November, after a light frost.  This timing allows root growth before winter, but means that the above ground shoots will not sprout until spring.

The chosen location should get at least six hours of full sun and have well drained rich soil, amended with compost. Practice crop rotation. That is, plant bulbs in a bed that has not grown crops in the onion family in the past 3-4 years. This will ensure your new crop is not affected by any lingering pests in the previous location. In addition, since vegetables each have different nutrient requirements, rotating plantings is always a good idea.

Obtain bulbs from a reputable source to ensure they are disease free, and when ready to plant, break each head into separate cloves. Leave the papery covering intact. Cloves should be planted pointed side up, six inches apart and with the base about two inches below the soil surface. Simply push each clove into the soft prepared earth, or alternatively dig a shallow trench.

Cover with soil, and water so that roots will begin to grow. Add 4-6 inches of mulch, such as straw or leaf mulch, which moderates temperature fluctuations in the soil. Leaving the mulch in place come spring will reduce weed pressure. 

Spring

In April, watch for green shoots poking up through the mulch (and sometimes snow). Through the spring, ensure plants receive approximately one inch of water per week. Garlic does not like “wet feet” so don’t over-water.

Image credit: Joe Gardener

By early June, hard neck garlic will develop long slender curly stems called scapes which emerge from the centre of the plant. Eventually these will produce tiny bulbils, which if sown will result in garlic plants that are clones of the parent.  Most gardeners cut off the scapes, since leaving them in place causes the plant to divert energy from the bulb growing beneath the soil. If harvested early enough, they are tender and mildly garlic flavoured, useful in the kitchen before your garlic harvest is ready!

Garlic scape. Image credit: Anna Sadura Healey

Pests

Garlic is remarkably pest free. Susie comments that squirrels, rabbits and voles, all found in most Kingston gardens, are not interested in snacking on garlic. In fact, some gardeners plant garlic near the base of young fruit trees as a deterrent.  

Garlic can be affected by a bulb mite that feeds on the basal plate and bulb, causing sunken brown scars. This infestation can also provide an entry way for fungal and bacterial pathogens, including fusarium rot. Adult leek moths may lay their eggs on the leaves and scapes, but this is easily avoided by using floating row covers early in the season.

Reap What you Sow

In mid July garlic leaves will begin to turn brown, starting from the bottom up. At this point, reduce watering as excess moisture at this point may encourage fungal diseases and causes the bulb to split. 

By early August, when half the leaves are brown, it is harvest time. If the harvest is too early the bulbs may be small, and if too late, storage issues may be a problem. Garlic bulbs are delicate, so instead of yanking them from the soil, first loosen the earth and then gently ease them from the ground. Carefully brush away excess soil and do not wash them.

Curing the Crop

Garlic must be cured for storage. Leave the stalks on and hang them in bunches from rafters or on a rack for about 3 weeks. Check for moisture above the stem and if any remains, continue curing. Once dry, the stem can be cut back and bulbs placed in a mesh bag at room temperature in a dark location with good air flow. 

Image credit: Susie Everding

Under ideal conditions, and if the papery covering is left intact, bulbs should last about six months. Although if you love garlic, perhaps your supply will not last that long!