Garlic is one of the easiest foods to grow. Just drop a clove in the ground, provide minimal care, and some time later—out comes a full head of garlic.
In this post, I’ll take you step by step through the process. Or, for the quick version, watch this video:
Still with me? Great–read on!
Garlic grows very much like a tulip—it’s just that we grow garlic in order to eat the bulbs but grow tulips in order to enjoy the flowers. You could grow garlic for its flowers (it is very closely related to alliums, a bulb we grow just for its flowers) but I wouldn’t recommend eating tulip bulbs!
Like tulips, garlic should be planted in the fall. I usually plant mine in late October or early November, depending on when it starts to get cold. I wait until frost has killed off my food plants that are sensitive to cold (tomatoes, basil, beans, etc. would all be considered “tender” plants—they die when it’s cold), clear them out of the garden, and then plant garlic.
If you plant garlic in the earlier part of the fall, or if it stays unseasonably warm into late fall, the garlic may start to grow and send green shoots out of the ground in the fall. This can cause new garlic growers to worry that their garlic is going to freeze and die in the winter, but it won’t. Once the frost and snow start the garlic will stop growing but just stay “as is”, and then resume where it left off in the spring.
If you can’t find time to plant garlic in October or even November (it happens, I understand!) you haven’t missed out completely. As long as you can still dig the ground (i.e. it hasn’t frozen solid) you can still plant garlic. One particularly busy year I planted my garlic at Christmas time and it worked out just fine.
You can buy garlic for planting at most garden centres, order it from a grower (especially if you want to grow unusual varieties), ask a gardening friend who grew some this year to share some with you, or even plant some locally grown garlic you buy at a farmer’s market or grocery store. Garlic imported from other countries is usually treated (irradiated) which means it won’t grow—do not try to plant garlic from China or Mexico. Your best bet, if you can only get grocery store garlic, is to buy organic garlic grown in Canada (or, for my readers from outside Canada, garlic grown in your own country).
To grow garlic you take a head of garlic, break it up, and plant the individual cloves. It’s possible to grow garlic from seed but that takes an extra year and it’s not worth it, just plant cloves.
Garlic needs to be planted in an area of your garden that gets at least 6 hours of direct sun each day (in the summer). Don’t plant garlic (or any food plant) in the same spot year after year. Diseases and pests that like that plant can build up in the soil. And, the soil becomes deficient in the specific nutrients that that plant pulls out of the soil in order to grow. Rotate your vegetable crops in different locations each year—one year tomatoes go in the back of the garden and garlic in the front, the next year tomatoes go in the back of the garden and garlic goes in the front.
Garlic can be grown in a pot outdoors, but it needs to be in quite a large pot, and one that won’t crack from freezing and thawing. I’ve grown about 8 plants in a black plastic pot 18” across. If you can plant in the ground that’s the better option.
Prepare the ground you’re going to plant in by adding compost or other organic matter. I also like to add in an organic fertilizer called Spanish River Carbonatite.
Each garlic clove is going to grow into a full head of garlic, so you need to space out the plants so that they each have room to grow and expand. The minimum distance between plants should be 4 to 6”, 8” would be great if you have lots of space to play with.
I like to lay all of my cloves out on the surface of the soil so I can see my spacing, and then take a trowel and dig each one in. They should be deep enough to be covered by 3 to 4” of soil. A bit deeper is not a problem.
Plant your cloves pointy side up, as the point is where the new growth shoot will emerge from.
Once the cloves are all in the ground it’s good to spread a mulch over top of the planting area. This helps to insulate the ground a bit (preventing “frost heave”) and will help to deter weeds next spring. It also deters animals from digging up your freshly planted cloves.
Squirrels won’t eat garlic cloves, but they will sometimes dig them up, discover what they are, and leave them out on top of the soil.
I like to use straw as my mulch. It’s often available at garden centres in the fall. I buy mine at my local farmer’s market. I would not use wood chips to mulch a garlic bed—they can lock up the nitrogen in the soil (something the garlic really needs in order to grow) as they break down. Shredded leaves (run your lawn mower over a pile of them) would work well, and there are certainly lots of leaves available at this time of year!
And then you’re done! The garlic will start to grow in the spring. Keep the area weeded and watered, make sure to prune off the scapes when they form (read my post on The [not so secret] secret to growing great garlic to learn about that), and you’ll be all set to harvest your garlic in mid-summer. If stored properly you can be cooking with your own home grown garlic into March of the next year.