How to Grow Great Garlic: a beginners guide

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Garlic makes everything in life better. And since you can grow your own, quite easily, we thought it was time to write a beginners guide on how to grow great garlic. Whether you’ve only got a windowsill or a whole garden bed spare right now, get some garlic in!

Garlic is a very space-efficient crop, and the yields, if you put the work in at the start, can be huge. A year’s supply of organic, homegrown garlic for your household, from just a few square meters. Who doesn’t want that?

The picture above is our garlic haul from last season, grown at our back door, in just four square meters. It’s delicious, it’s highly medicinal, and it’s so much cheaper to grow your own. Here’s how you do it.

Selecting seed

Firstly, seek out a good source of organic, Australian garlic – preferably locally, if you can manage it. Overseas garlic is often irradiated or sprayed with methyl bromide upon entry to Australia, and generally not suitable for planting (we’d steer clear from eating it also).

Hardneck vs softneck

Ok so there’s two main kinds of garlic – hardneck, and softneck. Hardneck garlic develops a hard central stem – these are the garlics that send up scapes (see below). Hardneck are better suited to growing in colder climates, and generally are considered to store for longer. Hardneck garlic heads can be identified by having a central stem int he middle of the cloves – softnecks won’t have this. Softneck garlic varieties thrive in milder climates, and produce more cloves due to their central space not being taken up by a stem. They don’t usually grow scapes, and don’t usually store for as long as hardneck garlic.

Though you will be able to source ‘seed garlic’ from seed suppliers (and this is fine to use) – you can also just use any great quality garlic, because all garlic is seed garlic. We’ve sourced garlic for planting from lots of different organic farmers over the years, so head to your local farmers market and pick up a bunch, or get online and find out what’s available. Keep in mind too that garlic will get more expensive as autumn progresses, so it’s best to get this sorted out. There’s a few sources at the end of this post.

If you grew some garlic last year, of course you can save your own seed – and this is a GREAT way over time to produce a local strain that deals best with your local conditions.

Once you have your heads of garlic home, select the largest ones to use as seed – the larger the seeds, the larger the potential crop. Then, break your garlic heads up into cloves, leaving the skins on. Set aside any wonky or small cloves to eat now, place your precious seed garlic cloves into a paper bag or cardboard box, and store somewhere cool but dry until planting day.

When to plant

Garlic is a winter crop that grows best over the cooler months. Depending on where you live, and what else is in your garden that needs to be harvested before you can prep the bed of garlic, there’s a fair window of time.

Some growers we know swear by planting at Easter (which can be anywhere from mid march to early April), some plant after Anzac Day (25th April) and some just get it in whenever they can, with the winter equinox (June 21st) being the cutoff date for planting.

We’re more in the ‘whenever we can’ team, though we try to get our garlic all in by the end of April.

Preparing your garlic bed

Firstly, choose a sunny site – garlic needs lots of sun, and as it grows through winter, finding an extra sunny patch to grow it can make all the difference.

As well as lots of sunlight, garlic needs well drained soil and a good amount of compost to grow well. If you can figure out how to give your crop all these things, you’ll be well on your way.

Garlic has a fairly limited root zone, so preparing your bed well will make a big difference to your harvest – the garlic’s little roots need to be able to move through the soil food web easily, to access all the nutrients it needs. Taking the extra time to prepare your garlic bed well will mean both easy weeding and a better harvest.

There’s many (so many) ways to prepare a garden bed for garlic, from no-dig to double-dig. Our preferred method is biointensive bed prep, because it’s so space efficient. Once a biointensive bed is done well the first time (there’s a how-to here), each new crop just needs a light forking and a little more compost sprinkled to maintain a well drained bed with lots of access to soil nutrients.

Garlic also takes a fair while to grow – around the 6 month mark. For this reason, we often plant it in a block, so that it’s not in the way of other crop rotations in our homestead system. You can interplant it with other quick-growing things like radish etc that will be harvested way before the garlic get going and so provide some soil cover and an extra yeild, but since garlic hates having its roots disturbed… we don’t.

Ready, set, plant!

Ok let’s go. You have two main options, if you’re planting a block of garlic: offset or rows. We planted last year in an offset grid (ie a diamond pattern) of 15cm, across a whole 4 sq meter bed, and that worked fine – though weeding was not as easy as using rows, and nor was mulching.

Our friend Hannah mentioned the other day that she planted her garlic in rows with super close spacings (10cm) at her homestead in Hobart last year, which made for easy weeding + mulching + tending. This year we’re doing one bed of each, to compare harvests.

Whichever pattern you decide to plant in, if you’re dealing with a wide bed, a planting board is a great idea. Standing on a wide board allows minimal compaction to your bed as you move along it, planting, planting, planting.

Plant your garlic cloves one-thumb deep. Yes, a whole thumb. Not a half thumb, or a kids thumb, but a whole thumb. This will ensure that the garlic head that forms is well underground and can access all the nutrients it needs.

We would recommend that, after planting, you don’t mulch the bed at this stage. Because garlic takes so long to grow, a few early weedings will help immensely, and you can’t weed small leaves effectively if it’s all mulched. Wait a few weeks. The bare soil will also allow it to heat up a bit, which will help germinate the garlic.

We would recommend, however, that you put 70% shadecloth over the bed until the garlic pops it’s first green leaves up – autumn is a time of hungry birds, and while they won’t eat your garlic, they can make a mess of your nicely prepared bed, looking for worms and food. Shadecloth also helps keep the moisture in the bed, suppresses weed growth, and raises the soil temperature to help the garlic germinate.

Watering

If you live somewhere with mild, moist winters like we do, you garlic will need very little water over winter. If it hasn’t rained all week, water the patch, otherwise leave it. Once spring temperatures rise, water twice a week if it hasn’t rained.

Weeding + mulching

We’d recommend weeding twice before laying down mulch on your garlic beds. Weed the first time when the first little weed leaves emerge – this is easiest done with a gung hoe or similar tool, as you can cut off the weeds in their early stages, while maneuvering around your garlic crop, and makes for a quick task.

We do this weeding process once, wait for the next round of weed seeds to germinate, weed once more when they’re at two-leaf stage, then mulch thickly after that. Mulching also helps with soil moisture retention, and by this stage the garlic is well up and on it’s way, so they don’t get smothered.

Tending

Apart from ensuring your garlic is well watered, you may want to give your garlic some extra loving over its long growing season.

We give our garlic a range of extra nutrients, from diluted seaweed fertilizer tea (how-to here) to worm juice, at a rate of about one application a month. More minerals, more healthy garlic, more awesomeness.

First harvest – scapes

[This scape bit applies only to hardneck garlic growing, softneck garlic doesn’t generally send up scapes. Sorry, softneckers…]

Ok zoom forwards to spring – early or late spring, depending when you planted. Your garlic is high (well, high in a garlicy way – maybe 40cm high?) and from each plant emerges this solid green stalk, that grows up, then sometimes curls back on itself. This is the garlic scape, and it is darn fine tucker.

Garlic scapes are the stem of the garlic flower, which left to grow will then form a flowerhead and in time, seeds. While these flowers are beautiful and edible, they take away significant energy from the bulb, so… we eat them as scapes.

Scapes can be harvested at any stage, though they will get woodier as they get older. Cut them off as far down as you can without damaging the garlic’s leaves.

Garlic scapes are delicious chopped and used in place of garlic or onion in a multitude of ways. Sometimes we pickle them whole, which is mindblowingly delicious, but mostly they end up freshly chopped into our breakfast eggs, because by spring we’re garlic deprived and longing to eat them as fast as we can.

Second harvest – green garlic

Green garlic is cheaters garlic, it’s true. But it is SO GOOD that I’m really not at all sorry. Green garlic is garlic harvested before the cloves form, so you pull up a plant and end up with one big knobby clove. Green garlic can be used just like garlic in just about anything, but the aroma and taste is extra pungent, though more delicate. Definitely worth trying if you have enough to spare.

Exactly when this stage occurs depends on when you planted, but generally green garlic can be harvested at anytime after your garlic is up, until a month before harvest – keeping in mind that the later you harvest it, the larger the green garlic’s knobs will be. If you love green garlic to a passionate degree you can also plant a bed specifically for green garlic, at double-close spacings than your normal garlic.

Third Harvest – Garlic with a capital G

Hooray, its garlic harvest time! Harvest your garlic when the green plant tops begin to brown off.

Firstly – and this is important – the day you harvest the garlic, make up a big delicious pasta dish with tonnes of fresh garlic and greens in it. You will now be motivated for the next stage.

Pull out all your garlic, leave them whole with their leaves on, knock any clods of earth from them and proceed to the curing phase, after you’ve stolen enough to get you through the first week or two.

Curing + storing

Curing your garlic after it’s harvested is very important. This is the process of letting your garlic heads dry out, without letting bugs or mould in.

We would recommend that for the initial curing stage, leave the garlic as is – leaves, light coatings of dirt and all. Leaving the leaves on during this first stage allows the garlic to draw what energy it can back from the leaves, and prevent any mould etc from entering via the cut stem butt.

Find a spot that’s dry with good airflow – the shady side of a verandah or similar – and spread your garlic out on whatever racks you have. We’ve used bread trays in the past, stacked high, or a variety of racking systems. Just a table will do also, as will tying them up to the rafters in small bunches.

Once the outside of the garlic feels good and dry (a few weeks) then you can clean the heads – snip off the leaves, leaving a few inches of stem, and take off the dirty outer layers of the garlic head – be careful not to pierce the inner layers that protect the cloves, as the garlic still has some curing to do.

If you want to braid your garlic, just take off the dirty bits and leave a few strong leaves attached for braiding. And then proceed to braid, and then store your garlic somewhere cool with good airflow.

After this stage, if your garlic isn’t braided (which I’d love to say that we do, but we seriously don’t ever find the time for this task in Autumn) proceed to cure your garlic for another month, if you can, and the weather is not too humid. This will extend its shelf life.

Once your garlic is cured, store it in bags or boxes somewhere with good airflow and low humidity. We store ours in re-used orange net bags, hung up in our store room to guard against pests. Keeping your garlic dry and cool is key to it’s long-term usefulness.

Using Garlic

We are going to assume here that you’re growing garlic because you LOVE the stuff, so it follows that you’ve got some ideas of what to do here… but have you tried these awesome techniques for delicious probiotic and medicinal garlic consumption?

  • Whole garlic cloves fermented in honey. This is delicious, and also an excellent preventative + treatment for winter colds + flu. Give it a go. There’s another recipe for this in Sharon Flynn’s lovely Ferment for Good book (which we highly recommend).
  • Whole garlic cloves fermented in apple cider vinegar. And now that i’ve said that, it seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? You don’t even need to peel them, just chuck in the whole head, pour acv over, store and enjoy for years.
  • Fermented garlic paste. This one is crushed garlic, salt and time. That’s it. Delish does not begin to describe it.
  • Homemade Fire Cider. Every home needs it, and ever home’s brew needs a lot of garlic in it. Do not hold back.

Good luck, garlic growers! As you can see, it’s not that tricky at all. Let us know how you go, and we wish you many future meals of home-grown, garlicy goodness.

Garlic resources

Lastly, if you’d like to learn biointensive gardening techniques (which we love) to grow best-ever garlic, and best-ever everything else, we’re bringing Jodi Roebuck back to Australia this coming Spring!

Jodi will teach a two-day Biointensive Growing workshop here at our place in VIC, and also at Pocket City Farms in Sydney NSW.. You can book in here.

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