Garlic likes full sun and well drained soil. Garlic is quite tolerant when it comes to soil types and textures, but it definitely appreciates sandy-clay-loam that is friable (easily crumbled in the hand) and has a high organic content. It does best when the pH is in the 6.2 to 6.8 range. You can get your soil tested at the local Ag extension office, free or for a nominal charge. Make sure you take samples from several spots in your garden and mix them together to obtain a representative reading. The garden or field should drain easily - standing water just won't cut it as the bulbs could rot in the ground. To increase the tilth of the soil (isn't that a great word?), add organic matter such as well-composted manure. You can also use a green mulch, that is, plant cover crops such as clover or buckwheat and then till them into the ground.
As with most crops, proper soil preparation is essential. If you have a large enough field, disc and cultivate to really work up the soil.
We plant a cover crop of Buckwheat and then plow this under as a green manure. It is cultivated twice prior to planting. If you have a large garden, use a tiller. If you have a small plot, spade up the top 6 to 12 inches. Garlic roots like to go deep, so well cultivated soil is a big help. Mix in the organic matter and manure at this phase. After the deep tilling, we find a final pass with a cultivator that powders up the upper several inches of the soil aids in planting
PLANNING YOUR SEED CLOVE NEEDS
The amount of garlic to purchase will depend on the area to be planted, spacing, and variety. Some varieties have more plantable cloves per bulb than others. Generally, there are about 50 cloves per pound of cloves. Therefore, garlic spaced at six inches within a row 100 feet in length will require approximately four pounds of cloves or four to five pounds of bulbs. Generally, seed cloves from one pound of garlic bulbs will yield between four and eight pounds of harvestable bulbs. This will also vary, of course, with growing conditions and variety.
WHEN TO PLANT?
In the FALL. Remember garlic is a bulb (like tulips and daffodils). Plant 4 to 6 weeks before significant ground freezing may occur. In Wytheville, we like to start by mid October. Further east and south, late September and into October will generally do. The idea is to get the cloves in the ground during warm weather so germination occurs and good root formation follows. It is good sign when you get green shoots popping above the soil in late autumn. Don't worry. The tips may suffer a little winter burn, but they can tolerate zero and below, and will start again in the spring.
When do you "crack" the bulbs? Since one obviously does not plant the bulb whole, you must crack (split) the wrapper and separate the individual cloves. It is best not to do this more than about 48 hours before actual planting, or they will begin to dry out and lose viability. Incidentally, one pound of garlic typically has about 15 bulbs. And each bulb has somewhere around 5-15 cloves (it depends on variety). Thus you have somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to 225 potential plants per pound of garlic. You can get a return of about seven times for a successful planting. But keep one rule in mind: bigger cloves mean bigger bulbs. Thus the smaller cloves should not be used for you main crop.
There are several techniques. In our climate we find it works best to let the upper few inches dry out and then bring in the cultivator, turning the soil almost to powder. Then you can literally just stick the cloves in the ground by hand and the soil covers them up as you remove your fingers. If you have heavier and/or wetter soil, you can poke a hole in the ground with a broom handle and just drop the cloves in the hole, covering up the entire batch with a rake at the end. This works best if you water the soil several hours before planting so it is moist but not muddy.
How close do you plant them? Our experience is that closer is better. If you look at the commercial plantings out in Gilroy, they are amazingly tight. But the cloves should have enough room to grow into large bulbs (at least 3 inches for hardneck and 5 inches for elephants). We plant in about 2 foot wide rows about 4 across with 3 - 4 inches spacing (3 across and 5 inches for elephants). The close planting helps with weed control once the plants get larger in spring as the leaves block out the sun to the later sprouting weeds. In any case, if you plant in rows, be sure to leave enough room (24-30 inches) in between so you can get in there to weed next spring (which you can count on).
Garlic appreciates fertilizer, and a good 10-10-10 works well, typically 3 pounds per hundred square feet. Our practice has been to till in quite a bit of very aged cow manure during the initial soil preparation phase. You can side dress the crop when germination starts in the fall. In the spring, fertilize again, but do not fertilize beyond late May, since high nitrogen levels at this stage may actually decrease bulb size. Organic growers, like ourselves, at Beagle Ridge Herb Farm apply foliar sprays of liquid fish and seaweed fertilizer, several times in the spring. Some people will dust the bulbs with bone meal at planting time to spot fertilize and help with germination.
This is a key element to real garlic success, and the colder your winters, the more mulching is essential. Mulch serves many purpose, not the least of which is to regulate the sharp changes in temperature and moisture that can occur during winter, especially out west. But it also goes a long way towards controlling weeds the next spring. Mulch can be hay, straw or alfalfa (but no seeds unless you want to grow a second crop). Lawn grass clippings are excellent. Chopped leaves will work if you have them. At Beagle Ridge we have found that straw works very well. I do have a trick for eliminating most weed seeds: place the straw bales in the weather for a couple of weeks, water well. This will cause any weed seeds to germinate, and remove them Then the straw is ready for use on your beds. We do have one problem here, however. It is the wind. Here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we are known for our winds. The trick for keeping the straw on the beds rather than in the next county is to wet it, before and after application. Wetting down your mulch helps compact it, making it less likely to blow away.
You should plan to put the mulch on immediately after planting (perhaps after giving the ground a really good watering). Don't be shy on the mulch, at least several inches should cover your crop. You would be surprised how tough those shoots are when it comes to punching through the mulch. If you do mulch extra heavily, removing some of the overburden in spring might be a good idea, but leave enough for weed control.
Most people hate weeding, but you have to … You either grow weeds or garlic, not both .So until we find a market for organic weeds, we just yank them up and use them as additional mulch (as long as they have not gone to seed yet), to further retard new weed growth. Garlic plants do not like competition, so getting the weeds out makes a big difference in your results. And don't let them get ahead of you. Sometime in early May this miracle happens - the little green fuzz of weeds explodes into a maze of 12 inch high monsters almost overnight.
Many people make a big mistake at this point. They wait too long to harvest. Keeping garlic in the ground beyond a certain point does not result in bigger bulbs, but rather dried out, split and nearly useless ones. When to harvest? When the lower leaves have turned brown, but there are still five or six mostly green leaves higher on the plant, it's time to harvest.. You can always test dig one or two plants. You should be able to see the shape of the cloves beginning to bulge through the wrapper. In Wytheville, depending on the weather, harvest can begin as early as the second week of July. There is also a two to three week difference in the harvest dates of the several varieties. So watch you plants carefully. To get the bulb out of the ground, don't just try to pull them. The stalk will break. You must dig, using a pitchfork or the like in order to loosen the soil. Then you can lift the entire plant out of the ground.
You can pop a bulb out of the ground and take it to the kitchen. However, if you want to store your garlic, you have to cure it first. After the curing process they store up to six months. The entire plant, leaves and all, should be dried out for about two to three weeks. The drier your climate the faster the curing will go and the less chance you will have to deal with mold. There are many ways to do it. The simplest is to tie up a bunch (a dozen?) with string/wire and hang them in a well ventilated place. Our barn is ideal. To give optimal airflow and aid in drying we have a fan on continually during this stage. After the curing is complete, lop off the tops about an inch above the bulb and trim the roots. Keep aside those fists you want to braid and clean them separately. When you do your sorting, keep your biggest bulbs for planting stock. Remember, big bulbs come from big cloves which come from big bulbs....and so on. Also it has been argued that the smaller bulbs taste better, I disagree. Whether, raw, roasted, sautéed or any other manner of cooking, Garlic can’t be beat.