Garlic. Delicious garlic. Oh, how we love garlic! As a first time grower, I went straight to the pros for any and all advice. I searched high and low online for growing advice, I poked around the farmers' market for selling advice, and I read magazine article after article for ANY kind of advice. We love it so much, I had to get it right. But there is nothing quite like getting your hands dirty and just doing it. Here is what I now know:
I started preparing the grounds at the end of last summer since garlic is planted in the fall. The OG (original ground) was rock hard so I tilled it first, then spread out a 3-4 inch layer of fresh compost. The compost was then topped with a 2-3 inch layer of mulch. I began watering the sections a few weeks prior to planting and the soil beneath the mulch was so rich and lovely that I decided to use this layering method for everything. Because garlic (and anything else in the onion family) takes a very long time and lots of water to grow, I was sure this technique would make it happy.
Garlic takes a good 9 months or so to fully develop. Depending on your zone, start garlic between September-October and plan to harvest the following year. Once the cloves are planted, dust it with a bit of manure at some point in time.
The best cloves to sow are from your own garlic heads from the previous harvest or direct from a trusted nursery/supplier. Garlic from the grocery store is treated with a growth inhibitor to allow it to sit on the store shelves longer.
Start by separating the cloves and planting the largest cloves with the pointy end up. (The larger the clove the bigger the head of garlic.)
I raked back the mulch and planted straight into the compost layer at 6 inches apart. I made sure the bottom of the clove was at least 4 inches down so it could root into the OG. Using a dibbler and a yardstick did the trick. I spread the mulch back over the entire row so it would keep the cloves nice and comfy through the winter. (When planting other things like tomatoes or squash, I'd wait until they grow to at least 6 inches tall to push the mulch back around the plant.) The garlic had no trouble pushing through the mulch and the compost stayed evenly moist the entire time.
Info: Since we've been chipping our own, I would now recommend using leaves and branches over straight wood chips. It breaks down and feeds the compost/OG much faster. No chipper? No problem! In our area, there are several tree trimming services that will deliver mulch for free.
The garlic poked through the same year I planted it, then really slowed down through the winter. This is perfectly normal. Sometimes it will just remain low and not poke through at all, and then just go-for-the-grow in the spring. (I suspect it has to do with the month you choose to plant; the earlier, the more likely it'll pop up the same year.)
Because we mulch so deeply around here, the compost and soil beneath is always moist. So I had to really pay attention and make sure I didn't make it too wet. The onion family likes moist soil, but too much standing water can cause mold and that ain't good. I would usually water the mulch layer just enough to keep it from completely drying out; not worrying so much about the layers below it. Then I'd water deeply about once a week*. It's all about finding that balance. For dry soil, regular watering is a must.
Another reason to use the layering method is to control weeds. From what I understand, the onion family does not like to compete with weeds at all... nope, not one bit. Weeding for me is easy because with the layering technique, weeds are practically nonexistent. (teeny tiny brag but stopping short before it gets unattractive) Otherwise, plan to weed regularly.
About a month (maybe a bit longer) prior to harvest, hardneck garlic will put out a scape, or flower head. (Softneck is tweaked to not do this so if you planted it then you can skip this step.) The scape will curl, and depending on the variety, you should cut it off at one or two curls. This will help the garlic put all it's energy into the bulb. In fact, it actually helps each clove become more defined instead of the whole thing turning out like one big round onion-looking thingy. Cut off that scape and cook up something yummy!
I stopped watering the garlic plants about two weeks after cutting the scapes. Then I raked the mulch back from the plants to help things continue drying out. The garlic was ready to harvest about two weeks after that. So all in all, it was about a month after cutting the scapes that I began to harvest.
Using a shovel, I dug about four inches away from the heads to make sure I didn't damage them! I shook as much soil off as possible and then using a spray/hose attachment, I washed off the remaining soil.
At this point, the garlic can be used anytime. We took a few out of the pack to use right away. This is my Georgian Crystal garlic and the smell filled our tiny home with love! As far as size goes it did really well and was very consistent, averaging about 3 inches diameter. The Polish Hardneck is even bigger, several got up to 4 1/2 inches! (yowza) We're definitely growing both varieties again...
Although you can use them anytime, it's usually best to dry the majority out for storage and replanting. So I laid them out under a shade tree for several days until the tops dried out. Two sawhorses, a sheet of plywood and some old fencing (for air circulation) did the trick. Then I grouped them into bunches of about 10 plants and hung them in a dry place (out of the sunshine to prevent burn spots). Using a garage or barn is just fine while you're trying to dry them, as long as it isn't too hot and it has some air flow.
Two weeks later, I cut off the tops (leaving about 1-2 inches of stalk), cut off the roots and peeled back 1-2 outer skin layers. Beautiful. I put them back up for more drying; about another week or so depending on the size.
When it's completely dry, the cloves will stand out more (due to the skin shrinking) and possibly turn darker (depends on the variety). Store the heads in a very cool, dark and dry place like your pantry or cold storage. Keep them in a wire basket or other bin with holes for air circulation. Your garlic will keep very well for six months or longer.
From start to finish, I have to say that I loved every moment of it. Bring on the next year!
Info: Hardneck garlic has a stem that runs down the center of the cloves. Quite an unusual thing for us Californians to see. But this makes it easier to peel each clove as there is more "order" in the hardneck galaxy than in softneck. The cloves surround the stem perfectly and patiently await their turn to be plucked and included in your next gourmet masterpiece. Delish!
*Tip: Pay attention to the weather. Start with The Old Farmer's Almanac to get a good idea on what to expect from the weather. Then check the forecast daily during late fall and winter. Around here, anything above a 40% chance of rain tells me to hold off on the watering. While the northern side of our county is iffy, the southern region is guaranteed to get it. Paying attention to the forecast helps me out every time!