Growing Garlic in Your Garden
If you are a garlic lover, like many of us, and also happen to grow a garden, consider incorporating garlic into your vegetable garden rotation. Garlic is a nutritious, flavorful, and relatively easy to grow vegetable, and stores for up to a year if harvested and handled properly. Plant garlic in the fall (October-December) for an early summer bulb harvest. Most cultivated garlics do not produce true seed, so garlic cloves are planted to generate new bulbs.
Garlics are classified into ‘hardneck’ and ‘softneck’ varieties. The majority of garlic purchased in grocery stores are softneck types, but homeowners often prefer growing hardneck varieties, in part because hardnecks will produce a scape, or flower, in mid- to late- spring, which is edible and often cut for eating. Softnecks do not typically produce a scape, and the bulbs tend to be harvested earlier than hardneck varieties. Softneck varieties can be braided for storage purposes; garlic braids make attractive decorations and lovely gifts. Generally, hardneck varieties do better in cooler climates (with longer, colder winters) and softnecks are better suited to warmer climates, but in our area, both may perform well. Within the hardneck varieties, there are the ‘rocamboles’, whose cloves alternate large and small, and the ‘continental’ types, whose cloves are mostly uniform in size. Rocamboles are typically easier to peel and have the most pungent garlic flavor, but do not store as long as continental types. Recommended hardneck varieties for North Carolina include German or Porcelain Extra Hardy, Music, Spanish Roja, and others. The Creole softneck varieties are not recommended in our climate; California Early and New York White Neck are more winter-hardy and will perform better. If you have never grown garlic before, purchase a couple of varieties to see which you prefer.
Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) produces a bulb up to four times larger than other garlics, and is actually a different species from true garlic (Allium sativum). Its large cloves are easy to work with in the kitchen but the flavor is not as strong as true garlic. It will grow well in North Carolina.
While it is tempting to plant cloves from garlic heads purchased at the grocery store, this is not recommended because these may be infected with viruses or other diseases that can cause a stunted or poor garlic crop. Purchase garlic seed from a seed company or garlic seed grower; most will ship their garlic seed orders in September or October.
Garlic cloves should be planted point-up, 2-3” deep. A common planting pattern is a 4” x 4” grid, but generally, cloves should be spaced 2-6” apart. Garlic is a poor competitor with weeds, so plan to weed beds often to achieve a good garlic yield. Optimum soil pH for garlic is 6.2-6.8. Soil tests to measure soil pH and nutrient levels are available free-of-charge until November at your cooperative extension office (in Caldwell County: 120 Hospital Ave NC, Lenoir). Apply or incorporate fertilizer equivalent to 17 lb per 1000 square feet of garden space of 10-20-20 fertilizer (or 1.7 lb per 100 square feet) before planting. Compost can supply some of the nutrients required by garlic and will also add organic matter to your garden soil. Garlic may benefit from a light application of nitrogen fertilizer such as bloodmeal or 10-0-0 in spring at “green-up”, when green leaves begin to grow again, and again in May. Do not apply fertilizer after May, as this may favor leaf, rather than bulb development. Please contact your extension office with any questions about soil testing, interpretation, and applying fertilizers.
Harvest garlic when there are still approximately 5-8 green leaves remaining on the garlic plants, typically in late June or early July. Elephant garlic should be harvested mid-May to mid-June, when about 30 percent of the foliage turns yellow. The bulbs will split open if harvested too late. To cure garlic, knock off extra soil but do not wash bulbs, leave the foliage and stem on and store in a well-ventilated place out of reach from rain or dew for several weeks. After curing, cut the tops about 2” above the bulb and remove dirty outer layer of wrapper. Softneck varieties can be braided following a short drying period but before the stems become stiff; a good estimate is approximately two weeks.
Order your garlic seed soon, and prepare your beds correctly to ensure a bountiful harvest next summer. For more information about garlic or about your lawns, gardens, and landscapes, please contact the Caldwell Cooperative Extension Center at 828-727-1290 or visit caldwell.ces.ncsu.edu.