By Felicia Brower, Master Gardener Apprentice, Denver County Extension
As we wrap up our gardens this season, we can begin to think about all of the crops we want next year. If garlic is on your list, now is the time to act.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is easy to grow and a great crop for beginner gardeners. Even though you’ll harvest in July, you’ll need to plant before the end of October. When choosing which garlic you want to plant, know that you’ll need to purchase your bulbs from a garden center, a farmers market, a garlic farm, or a seed catalog (now is the time to place orders for garlic — they sell out quickly this time of year). Grocery store garlic is often treated with anti-growth products that will prevent you from being able to grow your own bulbs from those cloves.
If it’s your first time purchasing seed garlic, you might be surprised at all of the varieties that are available. Each variety has a distinct flavor and an average number of cloves to expect per bulb, so do your research, and choose accordingly.
Choosing Garlic Varieties
There are two distinct types of garlic to choose from: hardneck (ophioscorodon) and softneck (sativum).
Hardneck varieties are easy to identify because of the (you guessed it) hard neck or stem that you’ll find in the center of the bulb. While hardnecks don’t store as long as softnecks, the flavors are often described as being more intense. Hardneck garlic plants produce a scape, which looks like a curly spike with a small bulbous end. Scapes tend to show up a month or so before the plant is ready to harvest and need to be removed so that the plant can continue to send energy down to the development of the new bulb. Good news: scapes are also edible. Popular varieties of hardneck garlic include Chesnok Red, Music, and German Extra Hardy.
Softneck varieties are often chosen because they tend to store longer than hardneck varieties, but they have a milder flavor. Most grocery stores carry softneck garlic, and the cloves tend to be smaller and more plentiful. Garlic braids are made with softneck varieties. Popular softneck varieties include Inchelium Red, Silverskin, and Lorz Italian.
Garlic plants don’t take up a lot of space and are known to repel rabbits and deer, so consider planting them around the edges of your vegetable and flower beds. Find a sunny spot and prepare your soil by digging a trench. If you notice you have heavy clay soil or very sandy soil, you should amend the soil with some compost prior to planting.
To prepare the garlic for planting, break apart each bulb into cloves, keeping the wrapper on each clove. Choose only the largest cloves to plant to ensure the best and biggest bulbs next summer, and use the smaller cloves for food. Plant the cloves immediately after breaking them apart from the bulb to reduce to risk of disease and excess drying.
Make a trench in the soil three times as deep as the clove. Plant each clove pointy side up four to six inches apart. Cover the cloves with soil, water well, and cover the trench with mulch, leaf litter, or grass clippings. Garlic needs water to grow and thrive, so make sure that you continue to water occasionally (about once every three weeks) throughout the winter season.
The tops of the the plants will start to come up through the winter, but don’t worry. Garlic is a hardy plant, and it should survive. Pull any weeds near the plant as it grows, as they will impact the size of the bulb.
If you plant different varieties in your garden, label each one so that you can make keep records of what grew best and which flavors you preferred for the next time you plant.
While garlic is an easy crop to grow, it is vulnerable to several types of rot. Avoid disease by planting only healthy cloves and being careful not to damage any bulbs while planting things nearby in the spring.
It’s time to harvest your garlic when the green tops turn brown and begin die down, which typically happens in July if you plant in October. If the soil is loose, you can pull the new bulb up by hand, but if it’s not, use a hand tool to get it out of the soil being very careful not to puncture any of the cloves. If you pull the bulb out of compacted soil, it can create wounds in the bulbs or the stem, which can quickly lead to fungal infections. When they’re removed from the soil, gently brush or rub the dirt off and let the remaining residue dry while the garlic cures. Fresh bulbs are very sensitive and bruise easily, so take care with the removal process.
If you want your garlic harvest to last, you need to cure it before you store it. After you pull the bulbs, spread them over or hang them in a warm, airy spot out of direct sun. Do not cover the bulbs with any heavy material, as that can prevent the air flow and encourage rot. If needed, use a lightweight cotton sheet. Store the bulbs at 40-60° F and cure for two to three weeks.
For a visual demonstration of how to plant garlic, watch How to Grow Garlic in Colorado – Produced by Tagawa Gardens, a partner in PlantTalk Colorado.