If there ever was a low-maintenance crop, it’s garlic. Each fall, I plant a ton of it and then completely ignore it. By early summer, my neglect is rewarded with a harvest of stinky bulbs that are larger and more flavourful than anything I can find in stores.
Garlic is an ideal urban crop because it takes up surprisingly little space. This year, we’re growing over 100 plants in our small garden. It can even grow in a large container.
Getting seed garlic
When you plant garlic, you’re planting cloves, just like the ones you eat. But don’t get your stock from a grocery store. If you do, you won’t know what variety you’re planting and could end up with something that contains disease-causing microbes or has been chemically treated to inhibit sprouting. Here are some ways to obtain garlic for your garden:
- Buy “seed garlic” from a garden supply store. These bulbs have been checked for quality and disease-free status.
- Save your own. If you grew garlic last year and did not experience any disease problems, hold the biggest cloves for planting. In addition to saving money, the garlic will adapt to your microclimate over the years and reward you with a better harvest.
- Ask a friend. If you have a gardener friend, chances are they’re like me and have some extra garlic to spare.
- Buy garlic from the farmer’s market. It will be locally grown, healthy and you’ll know the variety.
Keep in mind that each garlic clove makes one plant, and the bigger the clove, the bigger the resulting garlic bulb.
In most parts of North America, garlic is traditionally planted in the fall. Beyond that, things get murky. Depending on who you talk to, gardeners will recommend everything from “six weeks before the first frost” to “shortly after the first frost.” Sheesh!
My rule of thumb is to plant garlic three weeks before the average first frost date. Normally, the first frost here in Vancouver is November 5, but I predict that it will be a bit later this year, so we are planting ours in mid-October.
If you get the timing wrong, don’t sweat it. Over the years, I planted garlic anywhere from mid-September to late October and still got decent results!
Garlic comes in two main types: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck garlic is well-suited to rainy climates and makes a smaller number of bigger cloves. It produces “scapes” in the late spring that are great in pesto. Softneck garlic makes a larger number of smaller, easier to peel cloves. It doesn’t produce scapes, but you can turn the flexible stems into awesome garlic braids.
Last year, I planted softneck garlic for the first time. I had so much fun making braids, but the cloves were too small for my taste. This year, we’re going back to hardneck.
Garlic does best in soil with good drainage and plenty of organic matter. If your soil is compacted, use a digging fork to break things up, then work in layer of of finished compost, either homemade or purchased. I like to scratch a few handfuls of granulated all-purpose fertilizer into the soil at planting time.
Garlic is susceptible to fungal diseases such as allium rust, and for that reason it’s a very good idea to rotate it in your garden on a cycle of two years or longer.
I like to plant my garlic eight inches apart. That’s more space than some people recommend, but it seems to result in bigger and healthier bulbs. Use the handle of a shovel to poke holes in your soil of about three to four inches in depth.
Carefully break apart the garlic bulb, keeping the inner wrapping of skin on each clove. Plant cloves in the prepared holes with the pointy end up. Cover them with two inches of soil and pat things down.
Cover your bed with about two inches of mulch. Leaves are easy to obtain in the fall. Just don’t use pine needles, walnut or oak leaves, which can inhibit growth. Give everything a sprinkle or let the rain do its job.
That’s it! In the spring and summer, you’ll have some more work to do: scape removal, disease prevention, harvest and storage. But for now, in the fall, you can rest and know that your planting work for the year is done.