If you have ever thought about planting garlic but assumed it was a difficult crop, I am here to tell you that it is one of the easiest and most rewarding crops for the urban garden. It takes up very little space, and it does not need a large amount of care once planted. Garlic adapts to the soil and environment in which it is planted, making it one of the only vegetables that should be planted in the same spot year after year. It gets bigger and more flavorful each year, and as part of the allium family, it is a great companion for interplanting other vegetables.
In the north, garlic should always be planted in fall. I suggest late October to early November planting for zone 5 as you do not want to plant too early and risk the garlic sprouting if we have a warm fall, or planting too late after the ground freezes. You may purchase seed garlic from a seed catalog company if you like, but I recommend simply buying a few bulbs of garlic from a reputable source and storing it as your planting garlic. Farmer’s markets are a great place to find organic bulbs of garlic. You may pick out different varieties to plant or stick to just one to start out. Hardneck varieties such as German, Romanian Red, Music, Porcelain or Purple Stripe do very well in northern climates. Softneck garlics typically do better in a milder climate, so I do not recommend those varieties.
Prepare the garden bed
Pick out a location that gets full sun, is well drained and has rich loomy soil. Garlic does not like to sit in wet soil, so an area that is slightly raised or on a hill is ideal. Manually aerate the area with a hand rototiller to a depth of 6-8 inches. Add in a layer of compost and re-till to mix the compost into the soil. Finalize the bed by smoothing out the bed with a hand tiller or metal rake, being careful not to step on the soil or compact it.
Next, use a tool with inch markings on it to space out your holes for the garlic bulbs. You want to place them about 6 inches apart from each other and about 4 inches deep. I like to measure out all of my holes and dig them all ahead of planting the garlic so I know exactly how may cloves will be needed.
Plant the garlic
You should have some bulbs of garlic set aside for planting. Do not separate the cloves until you are ready to plant. When you are ready to plant, separate them but leave the paper intact around each clove. Also, break the cloves apart so that some of the base (basal plate) of the garlic is attached to each clove. This should be achievable simply by hand separating the cloves from each other. Use your largest cloves and make sure they are free of soft spots or brown. Place one clove per hole with the basal plate touching the soil. Cover the garlic cloves with soil softly by hand to ensure the cloves do not fall over sideways. Once there is enough soil to hold the clove upright, you may rake or lightly shovel the rest of the soil over the bed. There is no need to press down or compact the soil over the cloves, but do make sure it is sufficiently covered on all sides with no air holes.
Cover the bed
Garlic needs to be covered with organic material to survive the winter. Place a layer of leaves down first, wetting to keep in place if necessary. The leaves should be 2-3 inches thick. Next, cover the leaves with a heavier plant material. I like to use the nasturtium vine that actually grows in the same bed as the garlic. In the summer months, I grow nasturtium vines between the garlic. In the fall, I pull the dead nasturtium vines out and save them as cover to put right back over that same bed. Once all is covered, water thoroughly. This will most likely be the one and only time you will need to water your garlic, unless there is a massive drought. We normally will get enough rainfall in fall and spring, and garlic should not be watered once we get into the summer months because it needs to start drying at that point.
Let it grow
At this point, all you have to do is wait until spring. When the ground begins to warm, you may begin to see the new growth of the garlic cloves beginning to poke through the cover material. Do not completely remove the cover material at this point. Because of our fluctuating spring temperatures, you want to leave that material around the garlic. What I like to do is pull it slightly off the tips of the garlic if I see that the material is impeding the growth of the garlic. Once all danger of frost has past, you can remove the covering material, but leave behind some of the leaf cover as weed control and organic mulch to feed the bed. You may choose to fertilize the bed with a liquid kelp or fish emulsion in spring if you feel the garlic looks yellow or your garden soil lacks nitrogen. Feel free to interplant another crop between your garlic plants. I have planted kale, collards, swiss chard and squash successfully between them. Pick a plant that requires planting in the summer and will persist into the fall to best utilize your space. Avoid any other allium family crops or any other root vegetables as disturbing these when you dig the garlic may harm their growth.
First, make sure to use the delicious garlic scapes which will sprout at the top of the plants in about mid-June. Cutting these off the plant is actually desired because it sends the plant’s energy into forming the bulb, and you get to enjoy the scapes. Next, wait until the bottom 2-3 leaves of the garlic plant turn brown and die back which will occur in mid to late July. It is now time to harvest by digging carefully around each bulb to unearth it without damage. Garlic bruises easily and can get sunburn, so handle carefully and place the bulbs in the shade as you dig them. Leave the plant intact, and just brush off any loose dirt on the plants. Gather them into groups of 4-5 each and tie together so that you may hang them in a warm, dark and dry location with good air circulation for 2 weeks to cure. If you want to use one immediately, you may do so. Just know that once you crack it open, it will not store and the whole bulb will need to be used quickly. Once the garlic is fully cured and the outer paper is completely dry, you can trim the stalk and root off of the bulbs. Brush off any remaining dirt and store indoors in a cool, dry location. Garlic will store for 6-8 months or longer. Mesh or burlap bags make good storage units as they allow air circulation. If any of the bulbs are damaged or soft, use those right away as they will not store well. Make sure to save some of your bulbs for re-planting next year.