Does anyone not love garlic?! If you don't, this blog probably isn't for you. Personally, I couldn't survive without it.
I have to confess something. Up until 2020, I have never successfully grown garlic. It wouldn't grow. The bulbs were itty bitty things, too small to bother with. They rotted before I could harvest. Etcetera. I had given up until a guest speaker came to talk to my Master Gardener group about garlic. Lucas Holman is a UTK Extension Specialist in Middle Tennessee. Here's a link to a YouTube video of an interview with him re: garlic.
I won't get into the specifics of growing garlic, but I will tell you a few things I tried. First, garlic likes moist soil, but not wet soil. Those roots will rot if they sit in water too long. Next, as long as your soil is fairly good, you shouldn't have to fertilize. I grow in raised beds, so the soil is relatively loose and has good moisture retention & drainage. I dig some compost into the soil before planting the garlic and maybe scratch in a little all-purpose fertilizer around the plants in Spring, but nothing drastic. Too much fertilizer, especially nitrogen, can cause too much leaf growth and not enough bulb growth.
I try to plant my garlic in late October/early November. I've tried growing spring garlic, but never got enough bulb growth. One of my garlic growing failures occurred because I planted too early in the Fall (September); the goal is to get some root growth before winter arrives, but not have a big stalk of garlic growing above ground just as cold weather sets in. Where I live in east TN, my garden could experience sub zero temperatures one day, a foot of snow the next day and then sun and temperatures in the 60's the next. Crazy! The garlic will grow as it is able during the winter, but spring is when it will really take off. Late Fall planting gives the garlic a chance to establish before winter sets in. If you live in an area with lots of freezing weather, you will probably need to plant in the Spring.
Do not separate the cloves from the bulb until you are ready to plant. This might dehydrate the clove too much. I plant my cloves in blocks (see next picture), rather than in rows because I have raised beds. I try to plant each clove 5-6" apart from each other (room for those big bulbs of garlic to grow!) and about 3" deep. I use my pointer finger to poke a hole into the soil and then push a clove, pointed side up, into the hole. Wait until you get a section planted before you cover up the holes, so you know where you've already planted.
Keep those weeds away! Pulling big weeds from around the garlic will disturb the roots and slow down bulb growth. So pick weeds while they are tiny. You can mulch in between the garlic, but you don't want mulch up against the stalk. It may cause rot.
Keep the soil moist, but not wet. After May, don't water your garlic. Obviously, you can't help it if it rains, but too much moisture when it's close to harvest time may lead to rotting. (Can you tell that rotting could be an issue?)
Softneck vs. Hardneck: If you watched that YouTube video (above), it tells you all about the differences between these two types of garlic. If you live in the Deep South, you probably need to plant softneck. If you live in the Great White North, plant hardneck. Here in TN, I can grow both. You can order seed garlic from seed catalogs or online. If you are lucky, there might be a garlic festival near you and you might be able to buy your seed garlic there and not worry about paying for shipping. Here is a website with 2019 garlic festivals; most of the 2020 festivals were cancelled due to COVID. Here's hoping everything is back on track in 2021.
This is just the tip of the iceberg; so if you don't see anything near you, do a more complete online search. The good news is, once you have planted garlic, you can save some of your garlic to plant for next year's crop. Of course, a true garlic addict will constantly grow new & different varieties because you can never have too much garlic!
I went to the Western NC Garlic Fest (http://www.wncgarlicfest.com) in October 2019 and was able to buy a sampler of seed garlic to see what grew best for me. The only problem was that the writing on my markers washed off over the winter and I had no idea which garlic was what. Luckily, it all tasted good. I bought & grew hardneck garlic from the festival because I like to sauté the scapes (the flower buds) and the cloves tend to be bigger than on softnecks. (I like big cloves and I cannot lie!). I also planted cloves from a couple of store bought bulbs. Pro: they were cheap. Con: they didn't grow as big as the others. A very positive aspect of buying your seed garlic at a local garlic festival is you are fairly certain those varieties will grow well in your area.
Here is a picture of garlic scapes. As I said, they can be chopped up and used like green garlic in stir fries, etc. If you sell at farmers markets, scapes are usually very popular. Wait until the closed flower head has completed its little loop dee loop before breaking them off of the stalk.
Finally, the harvest! How do you know when to harvest? Some people say when all of the leaves have dried up; some say when the bottom half of the leaves have dried up. I generally wait until most of the garlic in that block is at least halfway dried & brown and then pull it all up at one time. If you're not picky, pick them when you want some garlic. However, if you want to save some of the garlic for future use, make sure to pick them 1) on a dry day, 2) when at least half of the leaves are dead & dry and 3) let them dry somewhere cool and shaded with the leaves on! Don't cut off the stalk until the entire stalk and leaves are dried out. Moisture = rot!
If you want more information on growing garlic, including varieties to grow and recipes, here are a couple of books to check out.
Don't forget your County Extension Agent! They may be able to give you lots of great info and it's free!
P.S. Elephant garlic isn't actually garlic; it's a type of leek. But, it's grown the same way, so enjoy! And, yes, there is a reason why it's called elephant garlic....