How to Reap the Largest Garlic Bulbs in the Summer from a Fall Garlic Planting

Growing Garlic in the City:  Fall Planting for Summer Harvest

By Cyndy Crist

This year's garlic (by Cyndy Crist)
This year’s garlic (by Cyndy Crist)

I am determined to grow better garlic.  Given how much I use it in the kitchen, I want an ample supply of fat white or purple heads from my own little potager. However, although every clove I’ve planted has produced a new head, they have been much smaller than I’d like.  I’ve just planted a new garlic patch (the timing was just right, coming after the first killing frost and before the first hard freeze) and I thought I’d share the steps I took, based on University of Minnesota Extension research and the experiences of fellow Master Gardeners, that I hope will help me enjoy better results in 2013.

Choosing Garlic

There are essentially two types of garlic: softneck and hardneck.  For a climate like Minnesota’s, hardneck is generally the best choice, but some softneck varieties can also be successfully grown.  To date, I’ve planted Chesnok Red, Music, and Polish Hardneck, as well as the softneck Inchellium Red. With just a little research, you can easily identify varieties that suit both your growing conditions and palate.

The experts advise against planting garlic purchased in a grocery store for two primary reasons:

  1. One is that this garlic may have been treated to extend its storage life, so planting it may introduce unwanted substances to your soil and/or impede growth.
  2. The second is that commercially available varieties may not be suited to your particular growing conditions.  Using heads purchased at local garden centers or farmers’ markets avoids both problems.
Prepping the soil for garlic-planting (by Cyndy Crist)
Prepping the soil for garlic-planting (by Cyndy Crist)

Getting Ready to Plant

The essential first step is to prepare the soil, working it well to a depth of at least five to six inches. Because my designated space had been well worked in recent years, I didn’t need to do much to loosen the soil.  The key is to ensure that the cloves can easily put down roots, starting in the fall and continuing in the spring.  Removing stones, old roots, and other debris also helps clear the way for growth.

Garlic is a heavy feeder, so once the soil was prepared, I worked in granulated organic manure fertilizer following the directions on the package and made sure it was nicely distributed to a depth of about 5 inches.  This is a step I’ve neglected the last few years, so I’m hopeful this will be a key to bigger bulbs in 2013.

Planting the Garlic

Once my soil was ready, I chose several healthy heads from this year’s crop and separated them into individual cloves.  According to the research, there is no single formula for spacing garlic.  In general, cloves planted close together will yield more, but smaller, heads, while those planted farther apart will yield fewer, but larger, heads.  Although I am seeking larger bulbs, my limited space led me to plant mine about four inches apart, positioning each clove with the base about three inches below the surface and the tip pointing up.  With my well-prepared soil, it was easy to push the cloves down to the desired depth without having to make holes.

Laying out the garlic strategy (by Cyndy Crist)
Laying out the garlic strategy (by Cyndy Crist)

I use two strategies for planting bulbs of all kinds that I find helpful.  One is to place them on the soil about where I intend to plant them, assessing the spacing after doing so in order to determine whether I have space for more or need to prepare a larger bed.  With garlic, since it’s best not to separate cloves until you are ready to plant them (and no more than two days in advance to prevent drying), this strategy helps me preserve the quality of my remaining garlic.

The other is to “refine” the soil as I plant each row or set of cloves/bulbs to help me remember where I have already settled some in.  I have noticed that no matter how much I think I’m paying attention, once the cloves or bulbs are planted and I’ve turned away to grab more, I lose the sense of where they are buried.  By stopping regularly to break up small clods of soil, remove any remaining debris, and smooth the surface, I can easily see where planting is already done.

Finishing the Job

Watering in the garlic (by Cyndy Crist)
Watering in the garlic (by Cyndy Crist)

Once my garlic was planted, I thoroughly watered it in.  For a situation like this one, I used a watering can with a rose since it distributes the water evenly over a large surface.  By contrast, a harder stream from a hose or a watering can with a spout can displace newly planted cloves, pushing them too close together or toward the surface.  Finally, to discourage digging by squirrels, which seem magnetically drawn to freshly turned soil, I sprinkled some blood meal over the surface.  I have found this to work well to discourage animals from digging in newly planted spaces, and since garlic is a heavy nitrogen feeder, the blood meal will also support growth.

I still have one more step to take before I’m done for the winter, and that’s to put down a three-to-four inch layer of mulch, preferably straw (though I often use leaves from my neighbors’ silver maple, which dry and curl nicely and thus make a cover that maintains a thick layer of insulation without becoming matted down). This will protect the garlic from the harshest winter low temperatures as well as the heaving that can result from freezing and thawing cycles typical of northern winters. I’ll put it on in four to six weeks, depending on the weather.

When warm temperatures return next year, I’ll remove the mulch (though I could leave it on), apply fish emulsion, and keep the bed well watered.  I’ll cut the scapes once they’ve formed loops and begun to straighten (using them in cooking much as I would green garlic, another benefit of growing one’s own), and I’ll dig the cloves once one or two leaves have begun to turn yellow, using a large garden fork with care so that I don’t cut into the cloves or disturb any that are not ready to be lifted.

Given the vagaries of weather from one year to the next, how well this crop of garlic will grow remains to be seen. I’m hoping for bigger, fatter heads than I’ve grown to date; whether I’ll achieve my goal remains to be seen. At least I’ll know I took the right steps.  And if my bulbs are still small, I’ll blame it on Mother Nature.

Addendum from Dorothy

Tips for Growing Garlic on the Small Farm:

(based only on my own experiences)

For Larger Bulbs:

  • Spring garlic in MN from unmulched beds (Stainbrook)
    Spring garlic in MN from unmulched beds (Stainbrook)

    The most reliable way to get larger bulbs is to plant large cloves.  They increase in size every year and if you save them over time, you will continue to increase the size of your bulb.  If I am starting new plants, I order bulbs from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, a company that has provided me with the largest bulbs for the best price in the past.  They also have a wide selection of varieties.

  • Cut off the scapes (the green part of the plant that makes a curl-le-que in the early summer).  You can cook that part of the plant for a mild garlic flavoring to dishes, and it allows the bulb in the ground to receive all of the growing energy at an opportune time (when the bulb is sizing up)
  • The distance apart that I plant the cloves is based on the size of the bulb that I am starting with.  You can assume that you should get a bulb next summer that is slightly larger than the bulb you are starting with, so I try to plant the cloves about the distance that would allow the bulbs to grow freely without growing into each other.  I do try to get them as close together as possible however to avoid weeding as much.
  • Keeping the garlic bed weed free is critical to bulb size.  The weeds compete heavily with the bulbs and decrease the size.

Mulching and Timing:

  • Spacing of large garlic cloves - Spring (Stainbrook)
    Spacing of large garlic cloves – Spring (Stainbrook)

    Mulching is really, really important.  I have grown garlic over the years in bare soil (as pictured in the photo to the right), and I have grown garlic mulched heavily with straw.  Based on my observations, hardneck garlic will grow fine in our MN winters without mulch, but the weeds get started much earlier in a bare bed and are much more difficult to control

  • Planting Timing:  I have planted garlic as late as Thanksgiving and as early as late-September.  Each of the past 14 years has yielded a successful crop.  Planting early can be problematic if the garlic starts to sprout before winter sets in.  If it does, just make sure and cover it well with straw and you should be fine.  Planting late can be problematic if it gets really cold early and the garlic has not had time to start roots.  It all pretty much depends on what the weather decides to do in late fall and winter.  The main thing is…don’t worry too much.  Garlic, like most plants, wants to grow and it will adapt to a wide range of farmer mistakes.  Just take care of those weeds and water!
  • Harvesting Timing:  In Forest Lake, MN my harneck garlic is usually ready for harvest in early July.  A harvesting cue is to harvest when half to three-quarters of the leaves turn yellow-brown.

Harvesting & Curing:

  • Harvesting:  On the farm in Forest Lake, MN, I harvest garlic with a straight-tined fork implement (like the one in Cyndys photo above).  I place the fork on the side of a garlic row, push it into the ground about six inches with my foot and angle it underneath the garlic to loosen the dirt.  The bulbs can then be pulled up and out easily by the green stems.  Shake them off or brush off the caked dirt and leave the stems and roots attached.
  • Curing:  I then take the garlic to my shop, which is unheated and well-venilated (i.e., drafty).  I lay the garlic out in rows on the open-wire shelves that I start my plants on.  Some people hang the garlic from rafters, which is great also.  The key is to get cool-air circulation around the individual bulbs for about 4 weeks.
  • Storing:  When your garlic is thoroughly cured (4-6 weeks), trim the roots, taking care not to knock off the outer skin. Cut off the stalks about 1½ inches above the bulb if you plan to keep the garlic in bags. Recycled mesh onion bags are perfect for storage.