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We generally try to plant our garlic in mid-October.  Some years it has been a little earlier and others a little later depending on weather conditions and our schedules.  We have found that planting in October gives the garlic enough time to start establishing some roots but it generally will not start to sprout.  If it starts to sprout, those new shoots will just be frozen off during the winter.  The bulb will sprout again in the spring and continue to grow but we feel that it may have used some of it’s energy producing the first round of sprouts that could have been used to produce larger bulbs.  Planting in mid October also gives the cloves enough time to establish roots which will help to keep them from heaving in the winter.   

A friend of ours usually plants in mid to late September and has planted garlic as late as December 31st and he’s had great luck with both.  So if you don’t happen to get your garlic planted by mid October don’t despair, you can still give it a try.  As long as the ground is still soft enough to dig you can still get your garlic planted.  Just be sure to keep an eye on it for heaving and mulch well if you’ve planted very late in the year. 

You can plant garlic in the spring but it’s not recommended as the resulting garlic bulbs will not reach the size they would have if they were planted in the fall.  They will still be tasty but they'll be smaller than they could have been. 

Photo of garlic bulbilsYou can also plant the bulbils (seed like things) from the garlic scapes if you’d like.  Planting the bulbil will result in a small round single cloved garlic the following year.  You can eat that small round garlic or if you replant it for the next season it will increase in size and after a couple years of doing so you will have normal sized garlic from it that has separate cloves. 

Most of our seed garlic was purchased from a slightly warmer climate.  It has been our observation that it even though a new variety will do well enough when introduced to our location that it seems to take three years of growing here before it really takes off and starts producing the really large bulbs.  It seems that it takes awhile to acclimate itself to the colder climate.  That phenomenon has also been observed by another of our Wisconsin garlic growing friends.  The seed garlic that we have obtained and planted from fellow Wisconsinites does not seem to go through that same three year period of adjustment.  It has all taken right off for us and produced the very large bulbs from the first planting. 

When we plant our garlic we plant into a freshly tilled field. (hopefully on a dry day)  We plant our garlic in rows.  We have found that the wheels on our ATV are spaced perfectly for marking planting rows that we can then easily get our tiller through in the summer.  We drive it through the field overlapping the wheel marks on each successive pass through and then plant our rows in the wheel tracks left behind by the ATV. 

If you’re planting a smaller normal garden sized quantity of garlic, you can plant them in beds rather than rows if you prefer.  Garlic is also very well suited for growing in raised beds.  We're also waiting for a report from friends on how garlic does for them in containers.  We plant our garlic in rows simply because of the size field that we are planting and it’s much easier to maintain with a tiller than to try to weed a field that size by pulling or hoe.  The recommended spacing for intensive beds seems to be in 6 inches.  The closer spacing in the bed also helps to keep the weeds at bay.  Personally, we'd recommend going with an 8 inch spacing - you can read our reasoning for that down below.

Now is a good time to mention the location of the garlic garden.  Garlic likes to be planted in full sun so be sure to plant your garlic in the sunniest location that you have available. 

Photo of garlic bulb and clovesWhen you’re ready to plant your garlic you will need to separate the bulb into its individual cloves.  As we’ve stated earlier, be sure to plant the biggest cloves from the biggest bulbs for larger bulbs at harvest time.   It really makes a big difference.  Ideally the cloves should be planted within 48 hours of being pulled apart to keep them from drying out.  Take care when you separate the cloves and try to keep the protective hard skin around each of them intact so as to minimize the possibility of diseases.  (note: if you choose to do the pre-soak that we mention below the skins will fall off the cloves, that's okay) 

Be sure and take a good look at the cloves at this time and discard any that don’t look right to you.  There are a number of diseases that can affect garlic many of which can remain in the soil for years so it’s not worth planting any suspicious looking seed garlic.  Fortunately we’ve not had to deal with any diseases so we won’t be addressing that issue here.  We have however thrown out seed stock that we’ve purchased that didn’t look quite right.  It was most likely the right choice, it just wasn't worth the risk. 

A few years ago we also started pre-soaking our garlic as recommended by Bob Anderson of Gourmet Garlic Gardens as an added precaution against pests and diseases.  We soak all of our seed garlic before planting whether it's our own seed stock or newly acquired planting stock.  Basically what you do is soak the cloves overnight in a solution of one tablespoon of liquid seaweed, and either one heaping tablespoon of baking soda, or one tablespoon of vinegar per gallon of water.  (we start with warm water for the soak but that's our own variation)  Then follow up with a three or four minute soak in either 140 proof vodka or rubbing alcohol just before planting.  The skins will fall off the cloves during this soaking process, that's okay.  Note: You really don't want to do this soaking process inside the house.  It stinks to high heaven!!!  Also be sure to process each variety separately or you're not going to know what they are when you're all done.

Note:  We are starting to rethink the automatic soaking of all the garlic versus using it just if we think a precaution is necessary as we have been experimenting and have  observed that cloves that are handled as gently as possible during planting with clove skins left intact (they fall off during soaking) and planted without soaking have been producing larger bulbs for us than those that were soaked.  We are still experimenting and observing to see if that holds true over a number of growing seasons to discount the effects of various weather conditions. 

When you're breaking apart your bulbs you may find a few cloves that have fused together to look like one big clove.  If you plant those you will end up with two bulbs that will become flattened as they grow together.  They will be edible but they won’t be shaped nicely.   

Now is also a good time to take a look at your garlic to be sure you can determine which way to plant it in the ground.  Cloves should always be planted with the pointy side up and the flatter side where the roots were attached, facing down.  If a clove is planted upside down the shoot will right itself as it grows and you will end up with a misshapen bulb.  Again, it will be edible but the bulbs won’t look as nice as they could have. 

We plant our garlic so that the top of the cloves are about 2 inches below the top of the soil.  If you’re planting a large number of garlic bulbs you may want to invest in an auger for planting tulip bulbs that you can use with your cordless drill.  They’re readily available at most garden centers and greenhouses.  After the first year of planting on our hands and knees we can definitely recommend the drill method because you can stand up while drilling your planting holes.  It also seems that by using the auger that it loosens up our heavy soil nicely and the roots and bulbs seem to be much larger than when we dug the holes by hand. 

When you’re just starting out with the auger and drill you can place a piece of tape on the auger bit to indicate the proper planting depth.  By the time the tape wears off after you’ve made about a thousand holes, trust us, you’ll get the hang of finding the right depth without it.  You'll be able to drill perfect planting holes in your sleep! 

Now, just in case you're curious about what happens if the cloves are planted too deep, we can tell you what we found during our 2007 harvest.  A small section of one row of a variety had somehow been planted WAY too deep, the tops of the bulbs were at least 8 inches below the ground when we dug them!  The leafy portion of the plants did not really look any different than the neighboring plants but the size of the bulbs was much smaller.  The bulbs planted correctly were well over 2.5 inches in diameter and the ones planted too deep were about 1.5 inches.  So, lesson learned in 2007:  apparently planting garlic too deep reduces the bulb size.

We space our garlic at least 8 inches apart in the rows.  When we first started growing garlic we went with the recommended 6 inch spacing we had read about for beds but we found that our garlic grew too large for that spacing and the bulbs were often crowded too close to each other.  When harvest time rolled around we found them practically on top of each other which sometimes caused deformities in the bulbs or found the roots of neighboring bulbs entangled.  It seems that since we’ve switched to a larger spacing that our bulb size has increased as well.  Perhaps not having to compete with its neighbor for food and water allows it to grow larger. 

Once the garlic is in the hole, it’s time to cover the planted cloves with soil.  Be very careful not to knock over your cloves that you made sure were upright when you stuck them in the hole.  We learned that one the hard way the first year and had a lot of really goofy looking garlic as the result that year! 

As you plant you will want to mark the different varieties that you’ve planted so you can recognize them at harvest time.  We use metal stakes with printed UV resistant plant labels on them but you can also use a garden marker or china marker or whatever method works best for you.  Be sure whatever you mark them with will withstand the weather.  We used permanent markers one year just to find out that permanent wasn’t really all that permanent outside.  That was a sad year, we had lots of pretty garlic that we couldn't use for planting the next year because we didn't know what it was.  It sure was tasty though!  We also make a quick map of our field and list what variety is planted where because every so often a plant marker seems to wander away over the winter.  

We also have learned from experience not to plant all of one variety in the same area of the field.  Even though our field slopes nicely to allow water to drain, one year there was a sudden thaw and re-freeze and a portion of our garlic field was covered by a frozen river.  We lost much of the garlic that had been planted in that area that year and unfortunately it was one of our favorite varieties that suffered the biggest loss. 

After the cloves have been covered with soil and the varieties marked, we then cover them with about 4 to 6  inches of straw to protect them over the winter in case of any sudden temperature drops.  Be sure to use straw that is free of weeds and seeds to save yourself some extra weeding the following summer.   We’d also like to mention here, don’t use hay for mulch.  We made that mistake one year and as it turns out, hay contains so many weed seeds that you’ll be camped out in the garlic patch all summer trying to pull weeds that are sprouting faster than you can pull them.  Hay is not the same as straw for mulch!

If your garden is smaller and you don’t have access to straw, you can also use leaves to cover your garlic.  We have a couple friends who use leaves and it seems to work just as well as the straw works for us.   

Photo of Mike covering the field with straw for the winterHere’s a nice shot of Mike covering the field with straw.  Doesn’t he look happy that the hard work is almost done and he can spend his winter watching football?

Garlic does not care for dry soil conditions so depending on your soil type you may need to provide irrigation.  We are fortunate that our soil has maintained a good moisture level for our garlic without any supplemental watering on our part so far.  It seems that our thick clay like soil helps to hold the moisture near the roots.  We also leave the straw on our field throughout the growing season (sometimes we pull it slightly away from the new shoots as they emerge but it’s not really necessary) as this also helps to keep the soil moist.  The most critical time for irrigation is from late May through early July when the bulbs are forming.  Lack of adequate water during this time may result in smaller bulb sizes.  Be sure to stop watering two weeks prior to harvest to avoid diseases and keep bulb wrappers from staining or in our case - to ensure you can get them dug out of the field without getting stuck in the mud. 

This is very important and cannot be stressed enough:  garlic does not like weeds!  We don’t use any type of chemical weed control on our garlic as we prefer to grow chemical free garlic since we do actually plan on eating it.  All of our weed control methods have been mechanical and at times quite challenging.  The weeds seem to grow so much bigger and faster out here in the country than they ever did in our garden in the city!  There are some soil applied and post-emergent herbicides that are registered for use on garlic if you do choose to use them on your garlic. 

In what we now refer to as "the year of the weeds" we learned how much garlic really does dislike weeds.  That year Mike was gone to Australia working for 4 months and Karen decided to stop tilling the field in 90+ degree heat while 7 months pregnant.  The weeds took full advantage of their free reign and took over the field completely. The garlic field looked like a jungle by the time Mike returned home.  Garlic harvest was nearly impossible that year and the size of many of the bulbs were greatly reduced – they were quite pathetic actually and a couple varieties were completely lost.  So, if you can help it at all, keep your garlic well weeded.  Having said that, we were very surprised that the garlic did as well as it did.  Some varieties definitely fared better than others with the weeds.  Garlic must be pretty tough to have survived that disaster. 

We have found that keeping the layer of straw mulch on the field helps with controlling the weeds quite a bit too.  We removed the straw one of the first years we were growing garlic because we thought it would hurt the shoots trying to poke through or would cause the bulbs to rot.  Weeding seemed like an absolutely impossible battle that year so the straw has remained in place ever since.  As it turns out the garlic shoots are quite strong and have no problem whatsoever poking up through the straw in the spring and we've never had a problem with any bulbs staying too moist and rotting. 

As they grow, the hardneck varieties will begin to form scapes with bulbils.  It is thought that the formation of scapes can reduce the yield of your garlic because the plant is using energy to form the bulbils that could have gone into the formation of the garlic bulb instead.  The reduction is said to be most pronounced in less fertile soil and less of an issue in well fertilized soil rich in organic matter.  If you’re going to remove your scapes the best time to do it is when you observe them just starting to curl.  To remove them you just snap or cut them off.  Scapes can be used in any number of recipes and are also good in salads so if you remove your scapes be sure to save a few for eating.  (scapes can also be dehydrated or frozen for later use if you’d like)  If you do leave the scapes on and they form bulbils, the bulbils are also edible and are nice added to a salad, stir fry, soup, or wherever you’d like to add a little fresh garlic flavor.

 We generally try to remove our scapes but at times our schedule has been too hectic to get it done or we’ve missed a few here and there as we did remove them.  From what we’ve observed, it really hasn’t made much of a difference in our bulb size.  We’re really hoping that’s a sign that we have rich fertile soil.

We've always wanted to experiment with growing garlic in containers but somehow after planting the field we've just never gotten around to it.  Fortunately we have some family members that are just as crazy about garlic as we are (or is that just as crazy as we are?) that have been kind enough to experiment with growing garlic in containers and share their experiences and growing tips with us.  Here is their story of how to grow garlic in containers their own words complete with a few photos of their 2008 garlic crop.  Thanks so much for sharing your story and expertise with us John and Sharon!

Yes, garlic CAN be grown in containers. We didn't know that for sure the first year, when we killed all our garlic by leaving straw on the pots through warm spells - the straw rotted out underneath, killing the garlic. Distraught though we were, we were undeterred, and this year, all of our four pots of garlic survived. From our triumph, we have learned the following lessons about growing garlic in containers. Remember that your climate may vary from ours and you may need to make adjustments accordingly. (John and Sharon are located in Virginia)

1) We plant our garlic in early October, taking the biggest garlic cloves from the head. This year, we successfully grew Silver White, Slovenian, Spanish Roja and Simonetti. We used regular potting soil just like all of our other container herbs. 

2) First, make sure you get a big deep pot. Though we grew our garlic successfully, the heads were not as large as they should have been. We planted five cloves per 16” diameter pot (but it was tapered more narrowly at the bottom). The problem wasn't spacing - it was depth. We had no idea that the garlic would shoot its roots downward quite so far, which crammed the garlic against the bottom. Next year, we will use our "large pots" (they are 20 inches in diameter, only slightly tapered, and deeper than our 16 inch pots - we normally use those for peppers.) 

3) So . . . plant the garlic only one inch under the soil in a deep pot! 

4) You will usually find that the plants grow in the fall, and then die down and go dormant in the winter. No worries, they are gathering energy for the spring. When you start getting cold nights, it is time to put some fresh straw on the plants. If you have warm spells, make sure you remove the straw so you don't lose your garlic as we did! We bought one small bale of straw and probably took off the straw and replaced it 3-4 times over the winter, leaving it off completely during the strange warm spells that Northern Virginia always experiences in the middle of winter. 

5) Early in spring, take the straw off completely. We used Miracle Gro on our garlic as it began to shoot up and that did wonders. As time went by, we began to use blood meal (garlic loves its nitrogen). Next year, we’ll probably mix in blood meal from the beginning to try and promote larger heads. 

6) Just like garlic in the ground, when about half of the green stalks go brown, it's time to harvest, though you can also gently check by using your fingers and checking the size of the head. We found that the Spanish Roja and Simonetti were ready in our area about mid-June, and the Silver White and Slovenian at the very end of June. This can vary with weather changes and geography, obviously. 

7) We rinsed the dirt off of our garlic, tied it together with twine and hung it in the basement to dry. The Spanish Roja and Simonetti already look as though they are dry and ready to go after two weeks of hanging in the basement. As Mike and Karen have mentioned before, don’t forget to tie a tag onto the garlic so you can remember which variety is which. 

8) So, give it a try - we'll be back to update our report after we have enjoyed our first crop of our very own garlic! 

Sharon Nelson and John Simek
President and Vice President of Sensei Enterprises, Inc. by trade
Container farmers by choice!           http://www.senseient.com/

Photo of garlic plants growing in containers on deck.Here's a photo taken of John and Sharon's garlic farm shortly before their 2008 harvest.  It sure looks easier to keep their garlic weeded than it is to weed ours.  They might be onto something with this!

Photo of freshly harvested garlic that was grown in containers.Here's a photo of some of the garlic from John and Sharon's 2008 garlic harvest.  Great job guys it looks really wonderful!  We may really have to give that a try now that we know it works.

Questions?  Suggestions?  Please email us by using the form on the bottom of the "About Us" page.  You may also email us directly at: karenandmike @wegrowgarlic.com  (remove the space between our names and "@" before you send)

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