Garden regrets? I have a few. Most notably I didn’t get around to planting garlic last year. You can buy the beautiful bulbs at farmers markets but it’s not like having your own not-so-pricey private stock. My remiss means I’ve been at the mercy of the grocery store stuff — sometimes squishy, occasionally riddled with rot, and seemingly always on the precipice of sprouting.
Never fear, this year I have my garlic on order. This planning means next summer I’ll have plenty of the pungent cloves on hand for making hummus, pickles, pesto and all things Ina Garten (of Barefoot Contessa fame). Not to mention making my home a no-go zone for vampires.
It’s not too late to place online orders; or you can find plentiful supplies of garlic at local garden centers and farmers markets in time for planting this fall.
Hardneck or softneck?
You’ll often see softneck garlic displayed in attractive braids, since it lacks a stiff flower stalk and stores well for long periods. However, it’s more suited to milder climates like the common California-grown variety available in grocery stores. It’s tempting to plant those cloves, but this type is not adapted to our arctic growing conditions. In addition it may be treated with a growth inhibitor.
Hardneck garlic is better suited for Minnesota gardens. It doesn’t store as well but the curvy, emerging flower stalk, or scape, is considered a delicacy for sautéing or pesto-making. Removing it also helps the plant devote more energy to bulb formation.
Among some recommended varieties for Minnesota: German Red, Spanish Roja, Inchelium Red and New York White. You might want to plant several of each to find which one grows best in your garden conditions or which flavor profile fits your taste buds.
When to plant
Garlic is planted in the fall just like tulips and other bulbs that need cold treatment to fulfill their destiny the following growing season. The optimum time for planting is a couple of weeks after the first killing frost. Don’t worry if some shoots emerge before winter arrives; the plants will recover.
Break apart the bulbs a day before planting so that the individual cloves are very dry. The cloves should be positioned with the pointy side up and the base 2 to 3 inches below the soil line. Ideally spaced, the cloves should be planted in double rows 6 inches apart with 30 inches between rows. Intensive methods like square-foot gardening allow for four to nine plants per block; however, the resulting bulbs may be smaller.
Best growing conditions
The size and quality of your harvest depends upon the growing conditions unique to your garden. Garlic, like many other edibles, needs six to eight hours of daily sun and well-drained soil. Sandy loam to loamy soil high in organic matter will make for bigger bulbs. To achieve this, amend the soil with aged compost or manure, which also creates the loose texture that garlic likes.
Garlic is a heavy feeder; incorporate a high nitrogen fertilizer like urea before planting, and then topdress two to three weeks afterward. This is especially important when growing in veggie beds that have been depleted of nutrients by summer crops. A soil test is advised to see if additional phosphorous is necessary.
Mulch the garlic bed with straw, and keep down weeds. Garlic doesn’t do well with competition. In spring, remove mulch after there’s no threat of a hard freeze. Consistent deep watering is critical during bulbing period from the end of May into the first part of July. Stop watering two weeks before harvest so that the papery skins stay dry and disease-free.
The right time to harvest
Knowing when to harvest can be tricky for inexperienced garlic growers; in Minnesota this can be the end of July through the first weeks of August. Once half to a little more than half of the foliage remains green, pull a couple of test plants to see if the cloves fill their skins and are ready to pull. It’s getting too late if they’ve popped out of their skins.
Carefully dig entire plants, taking care not to spear or bruise the bulbs. Although some swear by washing the soil from the bulbs at this point, I prefer to just brush most of it from the bulbs before allowing them to cure for several weeks in a dry, well-ventilated shed or garage. Some folks tie them in bundles; I lay them in a single layer on screens across sawhorses or boards. Afterward I clean them more carefully for storage. Cut the tops to within an inch of the bulbs. I recycle net produce bags for storage to keep the bulbs from getting moldy. Hardneck garlic can be stored for several months at room temperature. Usually, I run out long before this happens.
Rhonda Fleming Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer who blogs at thegardenbuzz.com. She is the author of “Pollinator-Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators,” due Feb. 1, 2016; available for pre-order at Amazon.com.