Helen’s guide to growing garlic

 

Helen Simpson, from the Mushroom Shed, tells you all you need to know about growing garlic. She has also written articles about growing basil, brassicas, chilli, coriander, cucurbits, ginger & turmeric, mint, raspberries, rhubarb, strawberries, tomatoes and lesser known herbs.

Also, read Robin Gale-Baker’s guide to growing garlic.

Additional material from Guy’s tips: is now really the right time to plant garlic?.

In a Sustainable Macleod newsletter Robin Gale-Baker ruminated about whether the recent warm weather means that we should be deferring our garlic planting. She and I have subsequently debated the subject in more detail. It is a tricky issue, with no clear answer. The salient facts are:

  1. In Melbourne, garlic is usually planted in April.
  2. Robin thinks that the soil is currently too warm for garlic planting.
  3. According to Gardenate, it is ok to leave the planting until May (or even June).
  4. Like onions, garlic plants are sensitive to the length of the day, with the start of bulb formation (and the end of leaf growth) being triggered by a day length exceeding X hours. (This website says that X=13 and this website says that this will happen on 13th October.)

If you plant too early (i.e. when it is too warm), a risk is apparently that the resulting bulbs don’t divide into separate cloves. If you plant too late, a risk is apparently smaller bulbs (because, per day length, the garlic starts trying to form bulbs when it is too young). One potential way around this dilemma is to keep the garlic in the fridge for 30-40 days before planting. I am going to try all the possible options and will report back in due course.

I decided to run a controlled experiment. Rows of garlic were planted two weeks apart over an 8-week period from mid April to mid June. In addition, some garlic was kept in the fridge for 40 days from mid April and then planted. All the plants died back at the same time (second half of November) and were harvested on 24th November. The key results were:

  1. The April plantings produced a normal number of normal-sized garlics with normal cloves.
  2. The May plantings produced the same results as the April plantings but in a bit less time.
  3. The non-refrigerated June plantings produced much smaller bulbs, half of which were not divided into cloves.
  4. The refrigerated June plantings (perhaps surprisingly) produced the same results as the April and May plantings.

The conclusion: continue to plant your garlic in April or May even if the weather is warm. If you forget, try putting your garlic into the fridge for a bit before planting.

garlicWith wintery weather underway, it can be difficult to find something cold hardy to plant in the veggie patch. But garlic loves the cold weather. In fact the more it receives, the better, as the cold is essential for large bulb formation.

Garlic can be planted in Melbourne from early April to late June. Surprisingly it’s a perennial, but usually grown as an annual and harvested from late November into December.

The downside of growing garlic is it takes up space in the veggie patch for around six to seven months. However its advantages include being relatively free from pests and (as long as it’s kept well-weeded and receives reasonable rainfall) pretty much fuss free. Of course it tastes great!

Selection

There are many varieties, categorised as ‘hardneck’ (firmer tuft above the garlic bulb) or ‘softneck’ (softer tuft, milder flavour, longer storage). We have found the hardneck varieties easier to grow and less prone to rot, but suggest you try both.

To obtain garlic for planting, purchase garlic bulbs from reputable suppliers who haven’t treated the garlic with growth retardants and chemicals. Farmers’ markets offer good choice and supply and you can check with the farmer directly on these aspects. Alternatively, garlic can be purchased in punnets, giving you the advantage of having someone else start the growing process for you.

If you have purchased bulbs, separate the bulb into individual cloves. Only plant the large, outside cloves – keep the small ones for eating. Large cloves produce large garlic – don’t waste your time with the small ones.

Planting

Plant cloves pointy end up, just under the soil. Mulch with a 3cm layer of straw or equivalent – make sure the straw is loose, so the green garlic tops can push their way through when growing. Plant in the sunniest spot you have.

Pests

Garlic is generally a ‘pest free’ crop. However, if you grow a large amount, watch out for the cockatoos in the early stages, who can destructively rip them out of the ground. If this is a problem, place a net over the garlic for the first few months.

Maintenance

Keep weed free!! This usually means weeding two to three times over the growing period. If grown in good soil at initial planting, extra fertilisation is not usually necessary; however, if the green tops of the garlic start to look yellow, fertilise with a liquid fertiliser.

Generally it rains sufficiently over winter to eliminate any need for watering; however, if the ground gets dry, then water.

Harvesting and drying

Garlic is usually ready to harvest around end of November to early December. When the green tops have died back by about one third, feel the garlic under the soil to check if distinct bulbs have formed – if so, it’s ready. Don’t wait until the tops have completely died back, or the garlic can often rot. It is easiest to harvest during a dry period – use a fork to gently lever out – don’t pull out by the tops. Don’t be concerned if it’s flowered.

Garlic can be stored by hanging, laying on airy racks above ground, or plaited and hung out of direct sunlight. If you want to make garlic plaits, do this whilst tops are still green – once the tops have dried, it is difficult.

Garlic takes about two weeks to dry; however, if you can’t wait, use it ‘green’, which means it will be very juicy. The garlic tops and flowers can also be used in cooking.

And finally…

Elephant garlic is also great to grow – note this is actually a variety of leek, not a garlic. It can be planted and harvested a few weeks later than garlic. The huge blue flowers look stunning in a cottage garden and the cloves have a milder flavour for eating.

Since the article above was published, Robin Gale-Baker and I have had a series of conversations about garlic planting. If you plant garlic too early (i.e. when it is too warm), the resulting bulbs may not divide into separate cloves. If you plant too late, the bulbs may remain small (because, driven by length of day, the garlic starts trying to form bulbs when it is too young). One potential way around this dilemma is to keep the garlic in the fridge for some time before planting. I experimented with different timings and different refrigerations and one of the conclusions was that refrigeration did, indeed, allow for later successful plantings. Read the results of the experiment.

Here is Robin’s current advice: “In the ‘old days’, before climate change, garlic would often be planted in March but these days the ground is too warm then (the perfect time to plant garlic is when soil temperature is 10°C at a depth of 8cm at 9am in the morning). Arguably, this is also becoming the case in April. So, commercial growers are increasingly giving their garlic a ‘false winter’ by refrigerating it for 40 days and then planting it out in May. This process is called vernalisation and helps late-planted garlic to develop large bulbs. If you want to copy these growers, you should be purchasing your garlic soon and refrigerating (not freezing) it in mid- to late-March. Buy from reputable sources (probably online or at farmers’ markets as nurseries won’t yet be stocking garlic heads) and do not use imported garlic as this may well have been sprayed with methyl bromide and a shoot inhibitor.”

  54 Responses to “Helen’s guide to growing garlic”

  1. Hi Helen,

    I planted 12 garlic cloves on the 3rd of June this year and they were growing well (i think) until a few weeks ago when half of these plants bent at the ground level overnight (looked almost like someone stepped on them).

    The stems now look weak and dying. The bent part just above the ground looks dead or wet brown. I only water them about 3 times a week. Would you know what happened? Are these plants still surviving?

    At the moment, I’m just using stakes to prop them up.

    • Hi Eve,
      Unfortunately the plants with the bent stem have reached the end of their life. Depending on where you live, I have seen kangaroos trample on garlic overnight and basically that’s the end of it. Alternatively, an aphid infestation can cause a similar behaviour, or garlic that gets too wet. I’d harvest what you can from them and hopefully the remaining ones will last the distance until end of November.
      Regards, Helen

  2. Hi Helen,
    Is it too late now to plant garlic in aquaponic here in Beveridge Victoria ?
    Also, if planted in soil, is garlic shade tolerant?
    TIA

  3. Hi Helen,
    I first tried to grow garlic when we moved to Tassie in 2013. We lost 70% of the first crop to fungus. So we tried again the following year. We broke the rich red loamy soil down with horse manure and we still lost about 40% to fungus. Anyway, I was at the local farmers market and I spoke to one of the Asian ladies who was selling garlic, and told her about my problem. She was lovely and happy to give me the following advice:
    Before planting,
    1. Make the soil as friable as possible, by adding a humus base. I used copious quantities of horse manure. (We’ve got a few horses)
    2. Sprinkle ‘raw builders lime’ to the soil. (very important).
    3. Soak cloves in a solution of Sodium Bicarbonate and Seasol (seaweed solution) for a few hours before sowing.
    Guess what – 99.9% success.
    I also believe that Tassie is ideal to grow garlic, as ground temperature gets to below 5-7 degrees when the bulbs are forming. Unfortunately, to grow it as a commercial crop is a bit hard as it is very labour intensive, and garlic hates competition and needs to be kept fairly free of weeds.
    Have you heard if any one has invented a garlic planting machine? Harvesting is no problem as an onion harvesting machine will more than do the job.
    Kindest regards.
    Arthur

  4. Is any way that you can tell whether garlic was treated with growth retardants and chemicals? I want to get some garlic for seeds and am not sure which one is a good one for seeds.
    Thanks

    • Hi Maria,

      Buying garlic that’s organically grown from a reputable supplier is the best way of obtaining garlic for planting. Check with the grower beforehand, if possible, that it hasn’t been treated.. Otherwise, there is no way to tell the difference between treated and untreated garlic – until it grows, where the treated garlic will often only grow a little, then die off a few weeks later.

      Regards, Helen

  5. Can you eat garlic that was sold for planting if you have too much to plant?

    • Hi Barbara,

      Yes, it’s fine to eat garlic intended for planting. It may not have been stored as hygienically as that for eating, so wash before use.

  6. Garlic can be frustratingly easy to grow. Easy because we just plonk cloves of garlic in the soil. Frustrating because it is meant to be easy but so often we end up digging out tiny bulbs containing even tinier cloves.

  7. Hi Helen,

    I’m in the SE suburbs of Melbourne. I planted in late March in a raised bed with good amount of rotted down sheep manure. The garlic boomed and grew very quickly. Now mid-April, the leaves are starting to yellow and looking a little unhappy. Can you advise on possible problems please?

    • Hi Luke,

      A couple of possible reasons:

      1. Some garlic is treated to retard sprouting (i.e. shops don’t like it sprouting, as it affects sales). In this case, it will grow up, then die off.

      2. Assuming the garlic hasn’t been treated, we’ve had lots of rain lately. It’s possible the garlic’s had too much water and is starting to rot. Fingers crossed, it dries out and rights itself.

      The good news is, it’s not too late to plant more!

      Regards, Helen

  8. Hi Helen,

    Can garlic be grown in hothouses in Virginia, SA? The hothouses differ in area but for calculation sake what seed garlic is required for 100 sq.M area and what will the expected yield be in that area? What is generally the price of garlic seeds in SA?

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    • Hi Pakhil,

      Neither Helen nor I have any informed answers to your questions. You would have to ask a commercial grower.

  9. Hi. After the garlic has been harvested, can the skin be peeled off and then be stored in the freezer till use?

    • Hi Pri,

      Yes, you can peel the garlic and freeze the cloves. They go a bit soft in the freezer but still taste fine in cooking.

  10. I have harvested my garlic and noticed some garlic has a blueish green tinge to the outer (normally white) skin. What could cause this? Is it safe to eat?

    • Hi Catherine,
      Without seeing it, it’s a hard to tell. However, if it’s mould, then the garlic will be soft and at the extreme, crumble away in your hand. If the garlic is firm and looks otherwise fine, then I wouldn’t be concerned. If you google ‘blue/green garlic’, you will see some photos to compare against.

      Regards, Helen

  11. Thank you for the advice. I have been growing a small amount of French garlic. To date, I will have 20 seeds for next year as its supposed to be the best, is that the case.

  12. Hi Helen,

    Thank you very much for your wonderful article.

    Could you please advise what is the minimum spacing between individual cloves as well as the minimum spacing between rows for a proper planting of garlic?

    Kind regards,
    Jamal

  13. Hi Helen,

    I’ve planted my garlic on 6th June this year, when do I expect harvest? Plants have thick trunks but no heads yet. Please advise.

    Kind regards,
    Jim Kapos

    • Hi Jim,

      Garlic will be ready to harvest late November – mid December but we need two dry weeks so that the bulbs are not damp when pulled. If they are, dry them in front of a blow heater. Don’t knock the bulbs together to remove soil as this bruises them and they deteriorate quickly.

      Garlic is ready for harvest when the bottom 4 leaves have withered and there are 4-6 green leaves remaining. This is roughly half brown, half green. The green leaves extend down into the bulb forming the skins. The more ‘skins’ you have, the longer the shelf life. Note that, as the lower leaves wither, they can be hard to see as they shrivel to almost nothing which can lead to harvesting too late in the mistaken belief that this process has not begun.

  14. Hello Helen,
    I live in South-eastern suburb of Melbourne. My garlic plants have an inch thick stems. In October, they have started growing new shoots. Is that normal? The new leaves are growing in the middle.
    I also have slight black aphid infestation which I just wipe off. How do I prevent it?
    Harry Who

    • Hi Harry,

      Yes, definitely continue to get rid of the black aphids, as they can really affect your crop. You could try a soapy spray – there will no doubt be an organic product on the market for it.

      The recent rains may have started your garlic growing strongly again. However, in the next few weeks you should notice the leaves start to yellow. When about 1/3 yellow down the leaf, it is time to harvest – this will probably be around end November. Not long until you can enjoy eating them!

      Regards, Helen

  15. Hi, we seem to have a very successful crop every year but, although they are dried in netting, they shoot early. How can we slow or prevent this please?

    • Hi Lyn,

      What variety of garlic are you growing? And how early is early? Garlic varieties divide into two broad types, hard-necks and soft-necks, and the hard-necks last less time before sprouting. Try a soft-neck next year.

  16. I want advice on growing my own ginger. If anyone can give me some advice on how to grow it, thanks.

  17. Hi, I’m Maria.

    I have tried for several years to try growing garlic but have ever got really good results and would like more advice on growing it. I tried with the cloves of garlic purchased from the supermarket with no results, now I would like to know where can I buy the cloves especially for planting and when exactly is the best time to plant. I in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Is it too late to plant it now? I also need help on soil preparation as well – do I put plenty of composting material or will that cause the garlic bulbs to rot?

    Can u give me some advice to get big bulbs – mine where so tiny I couldn’t even peel the skin off them?

    Has the garlic for planting been treated so it will grow better and where can we buy the cloves especially treated for planting?

    Does the garlic needs stored in the fridge before planting so it is cold for a few days?

    • Hi Maria,

      It is not too late to plant garlic but you need to act quickly. Put the garlic in the fridge for, say, 20 days and then plant in late May.

      You can buy garlic for planting from most nurseries that sell veggie seeds. Many farmers’ markets also sell garlic which you can either eat or plant. The garlic won’t have been treated for anything.

      Garlic doesn’t have any special requirements from the soil. Soil with composting material is fine.

  18. Hi Helen,

    Can I plant garlic in the same bed as last year’s garlic.

    Regards, Heather

  19. Hi Helen, I have had a great crop of garlic this year with flower heads producing bulblits (I think that is what they are called). Can I grow further crops from these?

    • Hi Narelle, yes you can grow from the bulblits. However, being small, it takes some years to get reasonable sized garlic from them. The cloves are a lot quicker. Regards, Helen.

  20. Hello Helen,

    I live in the northern suburbs of Melbourne and I would like to know if I can grow the Italian purple garlic? (I think that is what it’s called). I tried growing garlic earlier this year I grew tiny garlic bulbs. Why?

    • Hi Dani,

      When did you plant your garlic? Tiny garlic bulbs are usually a sign that you planted too late. In Melbourne, garlic should be planted in April or May.

  21. Hi Helen. I’m located in Brisbane. Planted Italian white based on recommendations for the climate. Garlic grew well until a month ago. Had a massive hailstorm after a very dry period. The garlic has now created various new thin leaves. On inspecting one, it seems like the cloves has started to grow inside the bulb. I wanted to grow the garlic for seed for next year. Question is, should I harvest all the garlic and let it dry out to stop the growth and will it grow next year? Also, some cloves have not formed. Can I harvest and re-plant next year and will it grow?

    • Hi Deon. I’m not experienced in growing garlic in warmer climates, but internet research recommends to plant around March in Brisbane and then harvest in September. As you have new growth appearing, I’d guess your garlic has been in too long. It may be inedible due to the new sprouts. If so, I’d keep it in the ground another season – digging it up and storing it will not work as it’s already re-sprouted, ready to go again. You may end up with it rotting if you get heavy rain over summer, but fingers crossed it will keep going and you can harvest next September.

  22. Last time I planted garlic (left them growing for 8 months) they ended up quite small. Why is that? What did I do wrong? Please.

    • Last year my garlic grew quite small. My location is Geelong.

      • Hi Charlie. I’m in Geelong, also. Last year I planted approx 90 bulbs, a mixture of organic from Noosa Farmerss Market and bulbs from Torquay (also organic), planted in mid April and harvested in early December, spaced 20 to 30cm, well dug in blood and bone and fortnightly seasol plant food, watered when needed, resulted in a very good crop with big heads. I’ve kept the biggest ones for this year.

    • To Mario and Charlie: In Melbourne, garlic needs cold winter months from April to mid-Oct for growing larger cloves. Plant the cloves between Feb and March so that they grow big enough to face the winter and probable nightly frost. Large cloves to plant, soft + loose composted soil, wider planting, weeding and watering is essential. Don’t leave them, nurse them. If the soil is not fertile spray liquid fertilizer. This is my personal experience.

    • Hi Helen
      Thanks for a great article. It has inspired me to grow garlic. Which we eat lots of!

      I don’t have much land to grow garlic and I note you state it takes up a lot of room.

      Can it successfully be grown at the base of fruit trees to deter pests? My veggie plot is not big and I’d rather keep it for veggies.

      Can garlic be grown in pots?

      Thanks!

      • Hi Giuliana,

        Garlic can be grown at the base of fruit trees to deter pests, however if the leaves and branches of the tree block the sun, you garlic won’t grow well.

        Yes, it can be grown in pots (slightly less successfully than in the ground) – something like a 1/2 wine barrel would be great for a number of plants.

        Regards, Helen

  23. Do you have to wash dirt from garlic before drying? Sue

  24. I would like to know if garlics have to be kept watered till harvesting time. Thank you!

    • Hi Tom,

      Around harvest time (harvest time has just started), don’t water and keep the garlic dry. The tops will start to dry off, if they haven’t already. When the tops have died back by around a third, it’s usually time to get them out of the ground.

      Regards, Helen

  25. Hi Helen, thanks for your tips – I’m going to give it a go! One question: when preparing the (outside) cloves for planting, should I remove the papery cover and cut off the bottom bit where it attaches to the garlic head?

    • Hi Kerry. Leave the papery cover on the clove for protection. You can leave the bottom bit on too – however sometimes it snaps off which is also OK. The main thing is not to damage the individual clove. Regards, Helen

  26. I accidently put my garlic on the window sill to dry out. It has just started to turn green. It doesn’t smell like garlic; it barely has a smell.The cloves are gigantic. Can I still use them?

    • Hi Heather, if your cloves are gigantic with little smell, you may have elephant garlic (a leek). Some of ours have turned green too. They can still be eaten or planted, as long as the green is not a mould, which should be obvious on inspection. Normal garlic can look like this too. Regards, Helen

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