How to grow garlic

Known the world over for its culinary and traditional medicinal uses, garlic is super easy to grow at home.

What you need to know about garlic

Name: garlic (Allium sativum var.)

Plant type: perennial bulb

Height: around 50cm tall

Foliage: long, thin, wider at the base than the tip and with a definite tip. Light greeny-grey; distinct garlic aroma when crushed.

Climate: tropical, sub-tropical, warm temperate and cool temperate, but care must be taken to select the correct variety for the region.

Soil: quality, open, free-draining, preferably with added organic matter (composts or composted manure). Will not tolerate heavy or wet soil.

Position: full sun.

Feeding: adding a quality controlled-release fertiliser at planting time can be beneficial.

Watering: little required, except during hot conditions.


Appearance and characteristics of garlic

With a distinctive flavour and aroma that can range from warm and mellow to bold, pungent and spicy, garlic has been a staple in the kitchen for thousands of years. Even the experts are not sure where it originated as a species, although they suspect it hails from Central Asia. What certainly aided its worldwide distribution, apart from the delicious taste, is the ease with which it can be grown. There are varieties of garlic for virtually every climate imaginable—tropical all the way through to cool temperate. Just about all it needs is a sunny spot and the right soil or potting mix. In fact, it may be the ultimate set-and-forget edible to grow!

Garlic “bulbs” are a collection of individual cloves clustered around a central stem. Each clove is sheathed in a papery covering, which also encases the entire bulb. Individual cloves are split off from the bulb when planting.

Once growing, garlic has foliage that’s almost lily-like in its appearance (and it is in fact part of the lily family). The long leaves will be tightly packed together where they emerge from the bulb neck before spreading and gently arching down to the soil at their tips.

Although not often seen, the flowers are quite attractive. They are very small, white and carried on a tall stem. They radiate out from the top of the stem, forming a sphere of flowers. Garlic produces foliage during the cooler, shorter days, then forms the bulb as the days grow longer and warmer.

Garlic is classified into two main groups: hard- and soft-necked. The rough rule of thumb is that hard-necked varieties are grown in cooler climates and soft-necked in warmer zones.

Uses for garlic

Garlic is most commonly grown for the kitchen, or for medicinal purposes. It can also be grown as a pest-repelling ornamental.

How to plant and grow garlic

Garlic prefers full sun. It will grow in part shade, but the bulbs will be small. it will be happy in most locations, but windy spots may lead to leaf damage.

Cold tolerance will vary with the type grown, but some hard-neck forms can tolerate –10˚C once established.

Garlic will grow well in most reasonable-quality, free-draining soils. Best performance comes from improved soil—blend through some well-composted manure or quality compost about a week before planting. It will not tolerate heavy, clay soil or wet soil.

Garlic will grow very well in pots. Use a premium-quality organic potting mix, or one that’s blended for edibles. Ensure the pot has good drainage, and don’t leave a saucer of water underneath.

Planting tips

1. Garlic doesn’t have an extensive root system and it doesn’t like root competition, so make sure you select an area that will give your plant the right conditions.

2. Improve soil around a week before planting, and add a quality controlled-release fertiliser too.

3. When selecting garlic to plant, you are best to buy planting garlic, rather than using garlic from the grocery store. If you do wish to use store-bought garlic, look for locally grown organic garlic.

4. When planting, separate a bulb into cloves and plant the individual cloves. If you’ve bought planting garlic it will likely already come as cloves.

5. If separating a bulb, plant the largest, plumpest cloves. Don’t plant any that have started to shrivel, and avoid planting small cloves, as these will just produce small bulbs.

6. Plant in a hole with the pointy end up. Planting depth will vary, but in cooler regions aim to have the top of the clove around 2cm below the surface, and about 8cm in warm regions. Position cloves around 10–15cm apart.

The general rule is to plant in mid-autumn, however, timing will depend on your region and the variety you’re planting. There are early and late season varieties (as a rule, red-skinned is early, silver skinned is late). To extend your harvest season, plant both varieties.

Caring for garlic

For best results, follow these tips to care for your garlic:

  • Mulch lightly with lucerne or pea straw at planting time, then add a thicker layer as the foliage develops.

  • Regularly feed with a seaweed-based product to stimulate development.

  • If you didn’t apply a controlled-release fertiliser at planting time, you can regularly liquid feed or apply a light side-dressing of blood and bone every month until foliage starts browning in late spring.

Watering garlic

  • Plants should be kept reliably moist as foliage is actively growing.

  • In late spring you’ll notice that the foliage starts to brown off. From this point, little or no watering is required.

  • Do not water within around three weeks of harvest.

Harvesting and storing garlic

Harvest time will vary with region, variety and, of course, planting time. The rough rule of thumb is that an autumn-planted crop will be ready for harvest in summer.

Bulbs are ready to harvest when most leaves have withered and yellowed. Lift when there are around three or four green leaves left and the stems are becoming soft at the base. The remaining leaves can be braided together, and bulbs should be hung and stored in a dark, dry spot.

Diseases and pests

Garlic is very pest-repellent. Oddly, however, young plants may sometimes be attacked by aphids. These can be easily treated with a suitable food-safe product.

Growing garlic around other plants that are prone to sap-sucking pests such as aphids can help keep these bugs away. Just plant some bulbs in various spots around your veggie or herb garden and let it naturalise.

How to propagate garlic

Garlic is only ever practically grown from individual cloves. Always select the plumpest fresh cloves for planting. Reject small or withered cloves.

If you like this then try

Onion: garlic and onion enjoy similar growing conditions.

Chillies: a fiery flavour partner for many cuisines.

Coriander: a summer herb garden essential. 

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