If you have ever wanted to try growing garlic but were just a bit intimidated, there’s something you should know: It is not hard to grow this pungent cousin of the onion.
Here are a few basic tips and tricks.
When to buy: If you have not yet purchased certified garlic seed from local nurseries, you should do it soon. Certified garlic seed has been checked and certified to be disease free. Do not plant cloves obtained from another gardener or from the grocery store. These can look perfectly healthy but may still carry white rot, a fungus disease that can persist in the soil for many years and make it impossible to grow garlic, onions or their relatives for years to come.
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You can find a number of Northwest nurseries online that offer “certified” garlic seed, but their seed is “certified organic,” not “certified disease free.” Look to your local nurseries for certified disease-free seed. By state law, it is illegal to ship or bring garlic seed that is not certified disease free into Benton, Franklin, Grant, Adams, and Klickitat counties. This regulation is in place to protect the commercial onion and garlic industry.
When to plant: About four to six weeks before cold weather arrives, or sometime during mid- to late October is the best time to plant garlic in our region. This allows time for the cloves to develop the roots needed to sustain growth in the spring. Keep in mind that during the period after planting and before the soil cools or freezes, the cloves will need water for growth. After cold weather persists in November, cover your garlic bed with about 4 inches of chopped leaf mulch or compost to protect the young plants from severely cold winter temperatures.
Where to plant: Like most vegetable crops, garlic grows best in a sunny spot that is well drained. Before planting, the soil should be loosened and mixed with some quality compost.
How to plant: Seed garlic is simply unpeeled cloves of garlic that are broken off of a bulb. Right after breaking the bulb apart, select the largest cloves for planting and place them in a hole or trough with their pointy end up. The largest cloves tend to grow into the largest bulbs.
Cloves should be planted so that their tips are 2 to 3 inches below the soil surface and spaced 4 to 6 inches apart in rows at least 12 inches apart.
Know your garlic: There are two main types of garlic: hardneck (aka stiffneck) and softneck.
Hardneck garlic tends to have more pungent flavor than softneck, but it does not store longer than six months under ideal conditions. Hardneck garlic grows best in colder areas with longer winters because it needs more chilling to stimulate bulb growth in the spring. As the name implies, hardneck garlic has woody and rigid necks, making it unsuitable for braiding. Its bulbs usually have 4 to12 cloves, with the woody stalk in the center.
If you typically buy your garlic in the grocery store, you are most likely getting softneck garlic because it stores well (up to nine months under ideal conditions) and has a milder flavor. Softneck garlic is the type of garlic used to make garlic braids. Its bulbs commonly contain eight or more smaller cloves, with a clove in the center.
There are many different cultivated varieties of garlic with varying shapes, taste and pungency. I prefer the strong flavor and biting heat of some hardneck varieties. It is important to note that growing conditions will affect the taste of any variety. Did you know soils with higher sulfur levels will produce more pungent garlic and onions?
For more detailed information, check out the WSU Factsheet 162E on “Growing Garlic in Home Gardens” available at http://bit.ly/2wU1bd9.
Marianne C. Ophardt is a retired horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.