Ready to grow your own garlic? Whether it’s hardneck or softneck, or some of each, these beginner tips will help you avoid common mistakes and ensure an abundant crop at harvest time.
Best done in fall, garlic planting is just one item on the Fall Garden Checklist. It’s a beautiful time of year to be out in the garden, both finishing up the current year’s garden and getting ready for the growing season to come.
Garlic Growing Mistakes to Avoid
Garlic is considered an easy to grow crop—and it can be—but there are also some simple mistakes that can ruin the crop.
Once planted, garlic is basically maintenance-free but it also takes a long time to grow. We start with cloves in fall and nine months later it’s finally time to harvest the bulbs. Best not to waste all that time to find out it’s a bust!
I’ll walk you through some tips and answer common questions including Can I plant garlic in spring?
- Choosing Garlic
- Planting Cloves
- Best Planting Time
- Best Planting Location
- Room to Grow
- Mulch For Winter Protection
- Harvest Time
Are you growing the wrong garlic?
You might do everything else right when planting garlic but, if you have not chosen a type of garlic that suits your hardiness zone and growing conditions, it may just shrivel up and die.
Garlic is divided into two basic groups: hardneck and softneck.
Hardneck garlics are cold-tolerant while only some softneck varieties are hardy enough for cold climates.
Examples: Russian Red, Nordic, Music, Big Boy, Purple Stripe
Hardneck or stiffneck garlic (e.g. Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) has adapted to cold climates. Planted in fall, you will have bulbs ready to harvest the following summer. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from although sellers tend to focus on a few select favorites.
You can easily identify a hardneck garlic in the summer when they bolt, sending up those delicious, green, curly-tipped scapes. A garlic scape is a central stem that, if not removed for cooking, will eventually flower and produce bulbils, which are also edible.
If you want to harvest garlic bulbs, it’s best to cut off (and enjoy) the scapes before they flower so the plant can put its energy into bulb production.
Examples: Silverskin, Artichoke, Italian Softneck, Island Star
Softneck garlic (e.g. Allium sativum var. sativum) is the mass-produced garlic we find at big supermarkets with 85% coming from China and India.
While most softneck garlic is suited to warmer climates, there are hardy varieties available.
Differences Between Hardneck & Softneck Garlic
Each type of garlic has a unique flavor, pungency, and aroma and preferences come down to personal taste (of course). I also find the same variety may not taste exactly the same one year to the next.
|Hardneck Garlic||Softneck Garlic|
|Size||Bigger bulbs, fewer but bigger cloves||Smaller bulbs, more (but smaller) cloves|
|Scapes||Bolts, produces scapes, flowers||Does not bolt or produce scapes or flower|
|Hardiness||Cold hardy||Some varieties are not cold hardy|
|Stems||Stiff stems||Stems are pliable and can be braided|
|Named Varieties||Hundreds of varieties||Dozens of Varieties|
|Shelf Life||4 to 6 months||6 to 9 months|
|Food Prep||Easy to peel cloves||Difficult to peel cloves|
Choosing the Right Garlic
- Be sure the garlic you choose is suited for your growing zone and conditions.
- If you specifically want garlic scapes, choose a hardneck variety.
A local garlic farm specializing in hardneck varieties (or hardy softnecks) should have several interesting options.
Did your cloves lose their skins?
Sometimes, it’s the little things.
You know that thin paper-like skin or wrapper you peel off a clove when preparing garlic for cooking?
That skin—just like our skin֫—is a protective barrier, helping retain moisture and shield the bulb from pests and disease.
You don’t want this husk in your food but you do need it when growing bulbs.
Clove Health Tips
- Be sure your cloves are nice and firm and have their paper-like skin intact. They should be healthy-looking with no signs of damage, mold, or disease. If the skin is starting to peel, don’t remove it, just plant it as-is.
Best Planting Time
Was the garlic planted too early or too late?
Fall is prime time for planting hardy garlic because the cooler winter conditions trigger bulb development. This is called vernalization.
It’s best to plant garlic a month before the ground freezes, sometime around first frost.
In hardiness zones 4 to 8, this may be in late September, October, or November.
It varies by variety, but an optimal vernalization period is generally a few months long with temperatures below 45°F (7°C).
Fall-planted garlic is harvested the following summer, often in July, when the garlic leaves start to brown and wither.
Best Time to Plant
- Look up your average first frost date and plant your garlic around that time.
- Prepare the bed in advance with plenty of compost so everything is ready to go.
Avoid the temptation to plant early. If you get warm spells in fall like we do, it can cause premature growth before winter resulting in a poor-quality crop the following summer.
Find Your Frost Dates & Hardiness Zone
- Plant Hardiness Zones | United States | Canada
These are listed on seed packets and plant tags to guide your choices.
Best Growing Location
Is there enough sun? Well-draining soil? Nutrients?
Garlic will struggle or grow too slowly if it doesn’t have adequate sun or the soil is too moist.
It also needs plenty of organic matter.
Best Location & Conditions
- Choose a location with at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun a day unless you’re growing a variety that tolerates part sun.
- Provide well-draining soil so the bulbs are never sitting in water. Prolonged water exposure will rot the bulbs.
- If needed, amend your soil with compost to provide ongoing nutrients.
Room to Grow
Was the planting depth right for the bulb size?
Just as it is for flower bulbs, planting depth and spacing for garlic matters.
Planted too deep, it may take too long for the plant to grow up through the soil, limiting the time available to photosynthesize and mature.
Planted too shallow, the cloves are vulnerable to freezes or damage from digging critters.
Spaced too closely together and the plants are competing for resources.
If your garlic comes with planting instructions, follow them.
- The general guideline is to plant at a depth just over 2x the length of the clove. If a clove is 2-inches long, you would position tip of the clove approximately 5-inches below the soil surface.
- Aim the pointy side up and the root zone or base down (if you can). If not, the plant will sort things out.
- Space the cloves 6-inches or more apart. The more room, the less competition for resources.
Mulch For Winter Protection
Did you add mulch for cold weather insulation?
By choosing a hardy variety of garlic you’re off to a good start but winter can still be hard on these crops.
A thick layer (3 to 4 inches) of an organic mulch like straw, grass clippings, chopped leaves, compost, or a combination of these things can help protect garlic from exposure to damaging freeze-thaw cycles. It may also discourage squirrels and other critters from digging in the bed.
Did you wait for browning leaves before harvesting?
Garlic is edible at any time in growth cycle but that doesn’t mean it will taste great at any time.
Harvested too early, the cloves may be bland.
Harvested too late, especially after flowering, they will be unpleasant—kind of bitter and too pungent.
There are two main indicators that it’s time to harvest garlic.
- First, is it mid-summer? Fall-planted garlic is usually ready in July.
- Next, are the leaves (stems) starting to brown? When over half the stems are drying up, it’s likely time to dig up, cure, and store your garlic.
Frequently Asked Questions
Seed garlic is garlic cloves suitable for planting new garlic bulbs.
Tablie garlic is garlic used for cooking.
Green garlic is the stems, scapes, or leaves of garlic and has various culinary uses. Think of it like green onions or scallions only it’s garlic.
In cold climates, the best time to plant hardy garlic varieties is around the average first frost date and before the ground is frozen.
Yes, some types of garlic can be planted in spring. Ideally, the garlic is vernalized first by keeping it in the fridge for two months and then planted in early spring.
Spring-planted garlic may yield smaller bulbs and harvest time is later in the summer than fall-planted garlic. The green growth of spring-planted garlic is called green garlic and has various culinary uses.
Seed garlic (cloves or bulbs intended for planting) do not get planted until fall but summer is the time to place your order. Find a local seller offering a variety of zone-appropriate options and place your order before they sell out. Some will ship at planting time so you don’t have to worry about storage.
Growing garlic from the grocery store is not recommended for a few reasons.
This type of garlic is probably not cold hardy. Most comes from warm climates including China and India. It may be treated with growth inhibitors to prevent the bulbs from sprouting.
Garlic in general is prone to various pests and diseases—something you do not want to introduce to your garden—so it is best to purchase seed garlic from a trusted source that guarantees their product.
Yes. Choose a container at least 8-inches deep and 20-inches wide to allow room for several plants. Plastic or composite pots work better than clay and it must have drainage holes. Use a potting mix combined with 30% compost. Protect the container over the winter to prevent freezing and ensure the soil does not dry out.
Garlic prefers a slightly acid soil pH level between 6.2 and 6.8.
The decision to fertilize always depends on the current state of your soil, how nutritious it is, and what the plant needs. I warranted, some gardeners amend their soil with homemade compost. Others prefer to add fish fertilizer or some other liquid, organic feed suitable for food crops.
The common advice is to wait until the scape is forming its second loop. That seems to be the time when the flavor is best and before it becomes bitter from flower formation.
Hardneck garlic, also called stiffneck garlic, generally lasts 4 to 6 months with proper storage conditions. It doesn’t really go bad but instead just dehydrates and shrivels up.
Softneck garlic can last 6 to 9 months if storage conditions are optimal. It is longer-lasting than hardneck garlic.
Garlic skin, also called the paper, wrapper, or husk, is the outer layers that protect both the garlic bulb and the individual cloves within the bulb. We remove the skin when preparing garlic for eating but keep it on when planting garlic cloves.
Elephant or great-headed garlic (Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum) is a hardy, biennial more closely related to leeks than garlic. It flowers and multiplies in its second year. The bulbs are large with a mild flavor.
Store garlic in a dark, well-ventilated space at 50-60°F (10-15°C) with moderate humidity.
Probably not. We currently propagate garlic vegetatively from cloves, called seed garlic as opposed to garlic seeds. It was not until the 1980s that we learned that garlic could even produce viable seeds. It is a complicated process to obtain them and they are difficult to grow. This is why you don’t see garlic seeds for sale in seed catalogs.
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There is so much more to explore about garlic. We haven’t even talked about garlic bread and delicious stir-fries and so many other fabulous dishes made from garlic. But, to get started growing, find a trusted source for seed garlic, try different varieties to discover favorites, and follow best growing practices for a good harvest.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛