It's November, and there are only a few dry leaves left on the trees, the mellow golds and bright reds turned to burnt orange and brown. I can hear geese overhead, their calls echoing down through the forest as they fly south. The wind is picking up. There will be a frost tonight.
I pull cloves off my garlic bulbs and push them into the earth, covering them with soil.
Planting garlic as fall turns to winter has become a tradition to me, my own way of marking the end of one growing season and declaring my hope for the next. Planting seeds just as the earth goes dormant requires optimism. One, that those seeds will survive all the harsh, unforgiving weather to come. And two, that you'll be there next spring to see them grow, harvest them, and enjoy them.
Garlic is actually one the easiest and most satisfying things to grow; all it really requires is good, rich soil and time.
Hardneck vs. Softneck
There are two main types of garlic - hardneck vs softneck. Knowing the climate and conditions where you live will help you choose the best kind for you.
Hardneck garlic is the more cold hardy type, which means it may be a better choice in very cold, harsh climates. They require a period of cold to do their best, which means planting them just before winter.
Hardneck grows a thick, hardy stem down the middle, around which the cloves form. This means fewer cloves than softneck - but the bigger cloves and more intense flavor of hardneck make up for that!
In early summer hardneck garlic also produces an edible flower stalk called a scape - these are delicious in their own right, and harvesting them redirects the energy in the plant to the bulbs, meaning bigger cloves at harvest time. So, it's sort of like you're getting an extra food crop out of them.
Softneck garlic is more suited to milder, warmer climates. It doesn't need a long period of cold to do well and matures much faster, meaning you can plant it right at the end of winter or in the spring.
It produces more cloves than hardneck varieties, but they are smaller and have a milder flavor (which some people may prefer!). They also store a bit better than hardneck because the cloves are packed in so tightly - they will keep well for a year, whereas hardnecks may only have three to six months before they start to dry out and lose vibrancy.
I prefer hardneck, just because they tend to grow very well in the cold environment where I am, and I like the reliably large, spicy cloves they produce. My favorite hardneck variety is called "Music" - I always get great results, and regretted the years when I strayed to other varieties!
Where to Grow
Like many plants, garlic likes as much sun as it can get. But, it will thrive in part shade, though the cloves might not grow quite as large. My rocky mountain top garden still manages to produce respectable cloves, even with the approximately 4 hours of full sunlight a day my garlic patch gets.
I also want to note that you don't need a tremendous amount of space to grow garlic - I have a very small patch, about 4'X4', and I'm able to grow enough garlic to last me well into winter. If you only have a sunny deck or balcony, go for it! It does just fine in planters as long as you give it good soil and enough water.
And because none of our animal friends want to be bothered with garlic, you don't have to worry about having a maximum-security fenced in area - my little patch is right at the edge of the woods, completely exposed to all dangers, and does just fine.
Though it's possible to propagate garlic from seeds, it's much easier to plant cloves; all you have to do is plant them root side down (pointy side up!), 6-8 inches apart, and cover with about two inches of soil.
Garlic is a heavy feeder, meaning it needs lots of nutrients to thrive, so try to plant in an area with rich soil.
After I plant my cloves in the fall, I usually spread out a layer of fresh compost on top of the bed and then cover with leaf mulch.
In the spring when it warms up, I sometimes add another light layer of compost if I can spare it. I also water with a dilution of fish fertilizer about once a week and water almost daily if needed - garlic likes a lot of water.
Garlic is typically harvested in late June or July. Here in zone 7, I usually harvest my hardneck scapes in June, and pull my garlic in the second or third week of July.
But how do you know when it's ready to be harvested? I've seen a lot of debate about this...so I'll just share my advice: keep an eye on the leaves. When three or four of the outermost leaves have turned brown and wilted but the central leaves are still green and healthy, the garlic is ready to harvest.
Curing + Storing
After you've pulled your garlic, brush as much of the dirt off as you can, then spread the garlic out to dry in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.
You can spread them out on a screen or tie them into bundles of 5-6 and hang them to dry. The key is to ensure that there's good airflow - no one likes moldy garlic.
After about a month, your garlic is "cured" and you can trim off the roots and stems and store it - I put mine in a basket or bowl on the kitchen counter.
What kind of herbalist would I be if I didn't mention the medicinal properties of one of our oldest and best plants?
Aside from being an incredibly delicious ingredient to cook with, garlic has been used as medicine for thousands of years. The Egyptians, especially, loved and revered this plant.
Garlic is hot, pungent, and a little spicy. It gets things moving! It's especially good to reach for when there is a sluggishness with chills. Garlic is a diaphoretic, meaning it helps to move distribute heat from the core of the body outward. This makes it a great ally to work with when there is a fever with chills - it can help the body to manage and distribute heat, venting any excess out through the skin.
Garlic, like other members of the allium family (Onions!), has also been shown to have strong antiviral, antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Adding garlic to your cooking throughout the winter may help to ward off colds and flu, and may help you recover faster if you do get sick.
One of my favorite ways to use garlic as medicine is to make garlic honey and take it by the spoonful or add it to my cooking - all you have to do is fill a jar about halfway with peeled garlic cloves (chopped up if you like) and then cover them with honey. Cap your jar and flip it about once a day, and after a month you'll have a potent, tasty honey that's pulled out all the good medicine from the garlic. You can either strain out the cloves/chopped garlic or leave it in - the honey will make it soft and sweet!
Be well and happy growing,