Garlic in the Home Garden

By Neil Moran

     People always seem a little surprised when I point out garlic growing in my garden. They’re not only surprised by its rather peculiar resemblance to onion, but by the fact that I’m growing it at all. I can relate. I was once just as puzzled! Like many folks I thought garlic was some difficult thing to grow. Well, it’s not hard to grow at all. And once you start growing and eating your own fresh garlic, you’ll want to grow it all the more.
     One thing that may cause some confusion is that you plant the stuff about the same time you’re putting your garden tools away for the winter. Garlic is planted in the fall just like tulips and daffodils.
     “Plant garlic six weeks before the ground freezes,” advises Ron Goldy, Michigan State University Extension Educator. Goldy warned against planting garlic purchased from supermarkets. The bulbs you purchase in supermarkets aren’t grown or stored in a way that is suitable for planting. Purchase quality bulbs for planting from garden catalogs or local garden centers.
     Keep in mind that garlic will have to be ordered from garden catalogs in May or June. Nurseries will then ship them so they arrive in time to be planted in the fall. Once you’ve made the initial (modest) investment in bulbs, you’ll never have to buy another bulb for planting. A good patch of garlic will provide enough cloves for your culinary purposes and to plant more garlic the next season, the season after that, and well, you get the idea. Store bulbs for replanting in a cool dark, and dry place until they can be planted in the fall.
     Prepare a garlic bed by working up a spot during the summer with a rototiller. Add garden amendments, such as compost, and keep it weed-free. Separate each clove from the bulb and plant 1 1/2 to 2 inches deep, six inches apart. Before the snow flies, the small cloves will sprout an itty-bitty root before hunkering down for a winter of dormancy At the first signs of life in the spring, a little ahead of the asparagus, green shoots will poke through the cold ground. It is at this time you can provide a light feeding of a fertilizer with a high phosphorous analysis. Keep your patch weed-free and provide shallow cultivation. Bugs won’t be a problem. In fact, garlic may even deter the critters, so you may wish to plant it near bug-prone plants. Provide about one inch of water per week. Garlic is usually ready to harvest by the end of July in the Bay area.
     There are three types of garlic to choose from: elephant, stiff-neck and soft-neck. As the name implies, elephant garlic is the big one, some weighing in close to a half a pound. It has a distinctive flavor and it is easy to grow. However, it is less hardy than the stiff neck, so it should be mulched well in the fall for protection.
     You’ve probably eaten the soft-neck varieties. They’re popular with California growers and should do well around the Bay. The soft-neck garlic variety allows for braiding like you’ve probably seen in the magazines.
     Although garlic is a staple in most kitchens in America these days, it hasn’t always been that way. While people in the Mediterranean, Central Asia, Africa and Europe have enjoyed the taste and health benefits of garlic for eons (the use of garlic in cooking dates backs over 6,000 years), Americans in general snubbed it up until the 1940s, with the exception of those who were growing and using it in ethnic neighborhoods. Today, we Americans consume more than 250 million pounds of garlic annually.
     There are countless claims regarding the health benefits of garlic, including lowering cholesterol, as an antioxidant and for fighting cancer. I’m no doctor, so I don’t get into verifying or denying any of these claims. However, I do believe in the health benefits of eating vegetables, especially those that are picked fresh from our gardens. So throw in a little garlic with your vegetables and enjoy!

Neil is the author of North Country Gardening: Simple Secrets to Successful Northern Gardening and From Store to Garden: 100 ways to make the most of garden store purchases. Visit his website at

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