When I started growing my own food, I didn’t realize how easy it would be to be totally self-sufficient in some staple crops. No, we’re not even close to self-sufficient in potatoes or beans, but we’re getting closer with tomatoes and peppers. We have been able to grow and store all the butternut squash and pumpkins we need each year for a few years running. And this year, for the second time, we grew enough garlic to last us through till next garlic season.
Growing your own garlic is a good idea for several reasons. First, growing garlic is easy. I would rate garlic as one of my easiest crops to plant, grow, and harvest. Second, garlic from the store or the farmer’s market is expensive. Growing it yourself is very cheap once you get established. Third, you have total control over the variety, size, and quantity you grow. Fourth, garlic is essentially two crops – the garlic itself and the garlic chives, which are one of the first crops you harvest in the spring. And fifth, there’s something really special about using your own garlic in recipes all year. It’s just somehow way cooler than picking it up at the grocery store.
Okay, you’re convinced. Now, how do you go about planting garlic?
STEP ONE: Choose your garlic. Most New Englanders I’ve spoken with about garlic say they prefer the hard neck variety of garlic. While you can’t braid it, hard neck garlic has better yields and is more hardy. You can plant garlic right from the grocery store (I’ve done this and it worked fine), but I would recommend buying seed garlic from a garden supply store or a local farmer. Once you get established, you can use your own garlic for seed.
STEP TWO: Prepare the bed for planting. Your garlic bed doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Just some weed-free soil, preferably mixed with some compost. If you don’t have a bed set up yet, check out the free beds my husband made from some fallen logs. You’re going to want to loosen the soil with a pitchfork or broad fork before you plant, but that’s about it.
STEP THREE: Plant your cloves. Open up the garlic heads, but be careful not to dislodge the dry, papery “skin” around each clove (you’re planting them, not cooking them). Then nestle each clove pointy side up into the soil so the tip is just below the soil surface. You can do this in rows, spacing the garlic cloves 4 inches apart, or using the square foot gardening method, whatever floats your boat.
STEP FOUR: Mulch. Your garlic will want a warm blanket for the winter, so it’s a good idea to spread wood chips or chopped up leaves on the bed after you’ve planted. You can let your cloves get established for a few weeks before mulching, or if you want to get everything done at once (I usually do), you can mulch right away.
STEP FIVE: Un-mulch. When it starts warming up in the spring, you’ll see little green garlic shoots. You can pull the mulch back once the nights are past freezing and let your garlic get growing. Leave the mulch between the plants to retain moisture and to dissuade weeds.
STEP SIX: Weed, water, and watch. With a heavy mulch between the bulbs, you shouldn’t get too many weeds, but keep an eye out for any and pull or snip them before they get big. It it’s particularly dry, give your garlic a good deep watering once a week, but honestly, I rarely water mine regardless of the weather and it’s never been a problem. You will want to water consistently (a good soak once a week unless it rains) once you’ve harvested the scapes.
STEP SEVEN: Harvest! The scapes will be a welcome surprise in the late Spring/early Summer. You can chop them up and use them in place of garlic or as a garnish. Make sure you chop them off even if you don’t want to use them (give them to a friend!), because that will help the plant focus on bulb growth.
STEP EIGHT: Harvest again! You will know it is time to harvest your garlic when the top three leaves are brown and the bottom three are green (I don’t remember where I learned that, but it works). You can also check a few bulbs to make sure they are ready. Don’t water the week before you harvest. You want your bulbs dry when you pull them, if you can help it. Then let them cure in a warm, dry place with lots of air flow.
STEP NINE: Store and enjoy. Once the garlic is cured, you should cut off all but a few inches of the stem. Then you can store it in a cool, dry place for almost exactly as long as it takes your next year’s harvest to grow. We usually use up our last garlic bulbs right around harvest time. It’s like magic!