MaryJanes’s Secret to
Growing Great Garlic
I’ve been growing garlic as a crop for about 15 years. My secret to growing great garlic? Most gardeners will tell you to plant late in the fall after the first frost, or even in the spring. But I like to plant in the early fall, about the first part of September. I’ve discovered that if it has a chance to start growing and establish some roots before winter comes, I get bigger, healthier garlic the next summer.
Here’s how to plant your own:
- Break bulbs apart into individual cloves away from sunlight to determine how much space you’ll need and how many cloves you have to plant.
- Dig trenches about 2–3 inches deep. Garlic does best in healthy soil; if possible, add some good compost to your trenches.
- Plant each clove about 6–8 inches apart with the smaller, pointed end up, then cover with 2 inches of soil. Water them at least once.
Around May or June, the garlic should begin to produce a bulb. Another secret? We harvest our garlic early (about the end of July). As soon as the bulbs have “sized up” and it’s apparent they’re no longer growing, it’s time to harvest. You won’t get that dark discoloration on the skin (actually a mold) that’s nearly impossible to clean off and will make it harder to sell your garlic at market. To harvest, dig out the bulbs with a spading fork on a dry day and move them immediately into the shade. If your soil is too dry and it’s hard to get the bulbs out, water a few hours before harvest and they’ll fork out more easily. Handle them carefully like you would an egg so they don’t bruise. Remember, NEVER expose garlic bulbs to direct sun. We actually lay a padded quilt on the floor of our truck bed, and as we harvest, we cover them with another thick quilt—that way, they aren’t exposed to the sun and they don’t bounce around and get bruised on the way back to the barn.
Hang them in bundles of at least five in a dry, shady place for 2–3 weeks to cure. You can then remove the stem with a pair of pruning shears about 1 inch from the bulb and brush the excess dirt from the bulb. At this point, you don’t need to be as gentle with them. Store them in a cool, dry, dark place (basements are ideal). Bulbs should keep well into early spring.
I can’t talk about garlic without mentioning garlic scapes. The scapes are the curly seed tops that hardneck varieties produce as they mature. The scapes are traditionally removed to enhance development of the bulb. Most farmers waste these flower tops, but we’ve learned how great they can be. In late June, as soon as the stems are in full curl, simply snap them off like you would asparagus—they’ll pop off in just the right place, leaving the tender shoot in your hand and the woody part still on the stem. They provide a delightfully subtle garlic flavor and tender crunchiness if added to salads and soups. And they can be made into a pesto that’s a pretty green color and has a rich garlic flavor without the hot garlic bite. Find my recipes for Garlic Scape Pesto in the magazine section of our website.