Garlic is an essential ingredient in most good food, and it’s fun to grow. Plant in fall, harvest in early summer. Some people plant on the shortest day of the year, and harvest on the longest day. They can only plant on the shortest day, though, if the ground hasn’t frozen.
In our area, a good idea is to plant when soil temperature has cooled below 60 degrees F., or about a month before an expected hard freeze. Our average date of first frost is about Oct. 9, but some autumns, warm days linger well into November, hard freezes usually wait until December. I plan to plant my garlic cloves this month, before cold winds make outdoors unpleasant.
I’ve heard some folks in this area plant cloves 12 inches deep, to avoid freezing cloves, but I don’t think freezing destroys any small allium cloves or bulbs. I recall shallot cloves that had just started growing in my garden were hit by minus 25 degrees F. in 1990, shrugged it off and resumed growing when weather moderated. Some shallot heads stored in a friend’s garage froze, and after they thawed, were perfectly fine for growing or culinary use. I suspect garlic is as hardy as shallots, or even hardier, since garlic cloves planted deeply do generate, but shallots planted with heads or pointed tips below soil level will just rot.
Incidentally, I’ve found seeded shallots are not as hardy as shallots from cloves. Seeds for shallots are different varieties than those we buy as shallot heads for dividing into cloves before planting.
When you plant your garlic this fall, plant large cloves to get large cloves. This is a nutrient-greedy crop since it’s in the ground for so long. At least one inch depth of compost should be applied to the area you’re going to plant in, and some organic fertilizer would be in order. Fertilizer such as fish meal, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal or soybean meal work, although cottonseed meal may contain residue of pesticides and soybean meal may be from genetically modified soybeans, if that makes a difference to you.
I wouldn’t use any animal manure, especially fresh manure, on a food crop. It really is not very plant-nutritious anyway.
To get nice big garlic cloves, plant your larger cloves about six inches apart, about two inches deep, pointy side up. I’d prefer they begin to root and grow at least a little above soil surface before we get to plant dormancy in early November. About November 6, we begin to receive less than ten hours of sunlight each day, so plant growth pauses, waiting for longer sunlight hours to return in February.
Incidentally, lettuce or spinach seedlings that are still very tiny just remain tiny, waiting for more sunlight and warmth. It’s amazing to see them remain in the same condition for weeks.
There are two basic kinds of garlic, the softneck and the hardneck. Hardneck garlic produces a scape (stalk) bearing top bulbils in late spring, and that stem should be removed to produce larger heads and cloves underground. Those scapes in flower (infertile) may be used for an unusual pesto or in other culinary ways. You can grow garlic from bulbils, but they usually produce round heads, not divided into cloves. However, they won’t carry soil-borne disease, and may produce garlic superior to that started from cloves.
If you wish to grow from bulbils, leave the stem (scape) in place until bulbils are mature, a week or two after you’ve pulled the other scapes. The in-ground head of such plants will probably be much smaller than those whose scapes have been removed. Plant bulbils about one inch deep, at least two inches apart in fall, when you would plant cloves of garlic. The size of bulbils and their production in-ground vary according to species.
Softneck garlic keeps better than hardneck, but it has an inner row of small cloves that are more labor intensive than large cloves. Most supermarket garlic is softneck garlic.
Idaho is a very productive onion and other allium-producing state, and to protect that industry, the Idaho Dept. of Agriculture has a ban on importation of allium sets or plants that haven’t been grown in SW Idaho. The threat is a fungus called “white rot,” whose sclerotia (essentially “seedlike” starts of the fungus) can infect a field so that alliums can no longer be grown. There is no known cure or antidote for this disease. This fungus can move in water, infesting new fields via irrigation. So this means we are not to mail order heads or cloves of edible or ornamental alliums (seeds are okay) and we’re certainly not to use supermarket garlic for our gardens.
Locally-owned garden centers obey this embargo, and most mail order companies won’t send allium bulbs here, but some chain stores continue to sell bulbs grown out of our area. The Idaho Dept. of Agriculture inspectors can force their removal from shelves, but some escape their vigilance. Just don’t buy them.
Once you harvest your garlic, it’s best stored in mesh bags hung in a frost-free area with good air circulation. Onions are best stored like that too. If you can’t find some way to store them like that, at least inspect them often to remove rotting bulbs, for one rotting onion can transmit rot to adjacent bulbs.
So-called elephant garlic is not a true garlic, but is a wild Egyptian leek, named elephant garlic by the original owner of Nichols Garden Nursery in Oregon. Those cloves, too, are under the state embargo, so buy starts only from locally-owned garden supply stores.
Send garden questions to email@example.com or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.