How to Plant & Grow Garlic in the Garden

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A gardener plants a row of garlic.
A gardener plants a row of garlic. (Image: YuriyS/iStock/Getty Images)

If you're interested in an easy-to-grow vegetable crop that takes up little space, try planting some garlic. Two types exist, called "hard neck" (Allium sativum ophioscorodon) and "soft neck" (Allium sativum sativum). Soft-neck garlic has large bulbs with randomly sized cloves that store for nine months or more, while hard-neck garlic has fewer, larger cloves in a smaller bulb with a shorter shelf life. Both types need only basic care and the right timing to provide a dependable home crop.

Planting Time and Method

Garlic is a year-round perennial in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 8, but it's generally grown as an annual throughout the United States. If you want large bulbs, plant garlic in the fall; if your area experiences frequent winter frost, plant cloves about six weeks before you expect the first frost. You can plant garlic anytime in fall or winter if you live where winters are warm, and it's also fine to plant garlic in spring, but do this early because cloves need several days in soil below 50 degrees Fahrenheit to start growing.

When ready to plant, purchase garlic that's certified as disease-free from a garden center. Avoid using cloves from a food store, which may not be viable and might also harbor pests or fungus. Break bulbs carefully into cloves and plant single cloves 4 inches apart; set them with flat sides down and pointed sides up, 1/2 inch deep if you have warm winters and about 2 inches deep if your winters are cold.

Soil, Sun and Water

Garlic grows best in loamy, well-drained soil that's been turned and loosened. You can also speed growth by mixing some fertilizer into the soil at planting; for 100 square feet of ground, add 1 pound of a granular 5-10-5 formula, mixing it into the top 6 inches of soil. For best growth and large bulbs, pick a spot that gets full sun for most of the day.

Once planted, water cloves thoroughly so that the soil is wet at least 6 inches deep, then add a 6-inch-thick layer of straw or another light organic mulch. New shoots appear in about one month for fall-planted garlic and continue growing until cold weather arrives, then die back. Once new growth appears in spring, ensure the cloves get about 1 inch of water weekly, including rain; provide extra water as needed, but stop watering when leaves begin yellowing in summer.

Fertilizing and Other Care

Fertilizing garlic with a high-nitrogen fertilizer when green growth first appears after planting helps get the plants off to a good start. Use about 1/2 cup of ammonium sulfate, which is a 21-0-0 formula, for every 50 feet of garlic-planted row. Scatter the fertilizer along each side of the row, keeping it a few inches away from the plants, and water it in well. You can repeat this application in spring, when strong new growth appears, but don't fertilize during the last two months of the season because too much nitrogen can lead to small bulbs.

Remove mulch from plants when spring arrives and threat of frost has passed, and trim off any flowers that appear to force the plants' energy into forming bulbs. When you see the plant tops start to yellow and fall over, this indicates harvest time has arrived.

Possible Problems

Because it's a natural pest repellant, garlic is seldom bothered by garden pests. It could attract small hopping insects called thrips or mites, which are not visible but cause weblike coverings; these pests usually cause no significant damage.

Garlc is usually disease-free, although it might develop a fungal problem called white rot when conditions are especially wet. It causes a cakelike, white deposit at the base of each bulb. It's not treatable and can cause loss of the bulb. The organisms live in the soil for years, so it's best to plant in a different spot if this becomes a problem.

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