Growing Garlic

One of the biggest mistakes gardeners make is planting their garlic too early! In our climate, garlic will grow best when planted in the fall, before the ground freezes, but not so early that the garlic actually sprouts before the first frost. The goal is to have the garlic clove produce roots and prepare for winter dormancy – not grow a shoot that will die back from cold exposure within a few weeks.

Generally, garlic cloves in Chicagoland should be planted around Halloween (the usual first frost date). In some years, the ground doesn’t freeze until well after Thanksgiving, giving procrastinators extra time to get the garlic in. In some years, we’re still experiencing days in the high 70’s through mid-October, making early sprouting more likely. If you forgot to plant garlic in the fall, garlic can be planted in the spring as soon as the ground thaws. This is usually around the end of March or early April. Planting later could result in the garlic not developing as large of a bulb, or just a single bulb instead of one with divided cloves.

Garlic cloves should be planted from “seed garlic” – disease-free cloves from a reputable nursery, seed supply company, or local farm. Garlic planted from the grocery may or may not sprout, depending on several factors. Plus, there’s a world of different garlic varieties out there!

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Several varieties of local seed garlic, from Willow Garlic Growers.

Planting Garlic – step by step:

  1. Prepare your soil – remove spent plants and weeds from your fall garden. Rake in some compost and a little all-purpose organic, granular fertilizer if you have them. Otherwise, gently incorporate into the soil surface in the spring, after the garlic has sprouted (around April).
  2. Select a garlic variety – hardneck garlic will produce an edible scape in June, while softneck garlic will not. Different garlic varieties have varying degrees of flavor, clove size, and ‘peelability’. Garlic takes up space in the garden for months – don’t waste your time growing something you don’t like. Generally, garlic purchased at local farmers markets will be good for use as seed garlic.
  3. Peel the outer papery sheath of the bulb, exposing individual cloves (but be careful not to peel the cloves themselves).
  4. Separate each clove and plant, root side down, about 4″ below the soil surface in prepared soil, at the right time of year. Keep the cloves spaces at least 6″ apart.

That’s pretty much it! Planting the clove 4″ deep will ensure that it’s deep enough to stay insulated in the soil during the winter (and won’t heave to the surface during the freezing/thawing cycles), but it’s not so deep that the clove own’t be able to produce a long enough shoot to reach the sunlight to begin photosynthesis in the spring. If you prefer, you can add up to a few inches of lightweight mulch (such as dry tree leaves or straw), but it’s a good idea to gently move it away from the emerging sprouts in the spring to prevent rot.

Garlic is typically harvested several weeks after the summer solstice (in late July through mid-August), which signals the plant to divide cloves and prepare a thicker papery sheath around the bulb for protection and storage. You can store it for a few months and replant in late October, or eat it!