As the winters get shorter, we plant our garlic later. It used to be late September as the nights begin to cool and the light fades, but these days the best time to plant your garlic in the northern New England climate is more like mid October to early November. Encouraging strong root growth before the freeze helps to sustain healthy and vigorous spring growth. Seeing the first garlic shoots in the spring is one of our earliest spring green pleasures on the farm.
There are two major kinds of garlic: soft neck and hard neck. Hard neck stores the best. Soft neck is good for braiding. We like the flavor of the hard neck garlic, and that is primarily what we grow. Every bulb of garlic contains several cloves, and these individual cloves are used as seed. Each clove will produce a bulb next year.
If you let garlic go to flower it will produce small seeds, like very mini garlic cloves - you can even eat them. It takes two years to produce a garlic bulb from these seeds so most people just plant cloves which produce a bulb the next season.
Only plant the biggest and best garlic cloves you have to ensure a good genetic stock for next year. You can plant any garlic from the grocery store, but be sure that it is organic because conventionally grown garlic is usually sprayed with a chemical anti-sprouting agent.
When to Plant
It is important that the seed has a few weeks to establish roots before the ground freezes. The best time to plant is 3 - 6 weeks before the big freeze, which usually comes to Vermont in mid-November. We plant our garlic around October 15 every year.
Where to Plant
Plant garlic where no members of the allium family (onions, garlic, chives, shallots, leeks) have been grown for 3 years. I like to try to follow my brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale…) with alliums as they act as a cleanser for the many problems that the brassicas can bring to soil.
Prepare & Plant
To prepare your garlic bed, add lots of compost and turn under lightly. I like to add an inch or two of compost every year. Plant each clove 6-8 inches apart. Poke the clove in to the ground, root down, to a depth of about your thumb, or 2-3 inches. The growing tip should be about an inch below the surface.
An easy method is to take a dibble, or a broom handle, and poke a hole about 3 inches deep. Drop the garlic in the hole with the root end down. Cover with soil. When all of the garlic is planted, water it well and cover it with a thin layer of straw or mulch to suppress weed growth.
The first few week go in to developing a strong root base, after that the garlic will begin to grow. Planting too early may cause too much top growth which is risky, as the leaves are susceptible to freeze and can encourage the seed to rot. A little growth is okay. If the leaves get taller than 4 inches, cut them. The new shoots are delicious and picking them will encourage more vigorous root growth. It is not necessary to pick them if they are short though, they will die back beneath the winter mulch and then come again in the spring.
After the First Freeze
Usually we get our first hard freeze in early November. Mulch the garlic patch heavily, 4-6 inches thick, with straw or leaves. This mulch will protect the tender cloves through the winter.
In the Spring
When you see some leaves poking up above the mulch, remove most of the mulch leaving just enough to suppress weeds and retain moisture. You may find some bent, yellowed garlic leaves beneath the mulch. Don’t worry, just uncover them and they will self correct. Garlic likes lots of water in the spring.
Early summer your garlic will begin to set scapes. This is the stalk in the center which forms a curly tip and then sets seed. Just as the scape begins to curl and spiral, cut it off and eat it. Removing the scapes will send the remaining energy of the plant in to sizing up the bulb. Read our tips on How and When to Cut Your Garlic Scapes and Harvesting Your Garlic.