Garlic is a powerful and pungent plant from the Allium (onion) genus with a rich history of use stretching back over 7,000 years, across nearly every continent.
Though today we generally grow garlic for culinary purposes, it was used primarily for its medicinal properties for thousands of years prior to the modern era. If you’ve never tried fresh, homegrown garlic, you really can’t even imagine what you’re missing. So give it a shot!
When raw garlic is chopped or crushed, it produces allicin, the sulfur compound responsible for its distinctive aroma. This compound is actually the plant’s defense mechanism against pests, but it’s what makes garlic so appealing to us pesky humans. The more finely you chop or crush it, the more allicin is produced.
Allicin has been shown to be as effective as broad spectrum pharmaceutical drugs for its antibiotic properties. High doses of allicin (equivalent to multiple cloves per day) can significantly improve immune function and blood circulation, which means it is indispensable in the colder months of the year. It also has a long history of use as a cure for fatigue, particularly among laborers and athletes.
Allicin breaks down when cooked, so it's best to eat garlic raw for the medicinal benefits. If you're turned off by the idea of snacking on raw cloves, you can add your chopped raw garlic to cooked meals at the very end of the cooking process so that the allicin remains mostly intact.
In addition to being a great supplement for the human body, garlic is also an excellent addition to your garden for its pesticidal and fungicidal properties. Grow alliums like garlic in close proximity to other crops to help naturally deter pests. Just don't plant them too close to legumes or potatoes, as those plants are turned off by these same effects.
You wouldn’t know it from scanning the aisles of your local supermarket, but there are hundreds of unique varieties of garlic available to the intrepid gardener or farmer’s market patron. Garlic is categorized into two subspecies, commonly referred to as “softneck” and “hardneck” garlic, with further subcategories found within each.
Softnecks are what you generally find at the grocery store; subtypes include Creole, artichoke, and Asian varieties. These grow best where winters are mild, and they tend to be on the more mellow side in terms of flavor. Hardneck garlic may be categorized as porcelain, purple stripe, or rocambole, and these varieties are better suited for colder winter weather. They've got the hot, spicy flavor that can overwhelm the uninitiated.
I prefer hardnecks because they tend to produce larger, more uniform cloves that are easier to peel, but most importantly, because they send up tender, delicious seed stalks known as scapes, which I look forward to more than just about anything else that pops up early in the growing season.
You could probably write a whole book on the subject of garlic varieties alone, so for the sake of brevity I’ll just say: go out and try as many varieties as you can! Eventually you’ll have a good sense of your personal preferences, as well as what grows best in your specific climate and garden.
When to Plant Garlic
Garlic is most often planted toward the end of the growing season, usually October or November in most climates, to be harvested early in the following summer. It can also be planted in late winter after the ground thaws out, but fall planting is ideal in order to give the bulbs plenty of time to become established underground during the winter months.
The received wisdom says to plant garlic after a few light frosts in the fall, but before the hard freezes set in. This could translate to a window of a couple weeks, or perhaps a month or two depending on your climate. If you’re reading this at the time of publication (late November) and you live in Zone 6 or warmer, you may still have time, but this is probably about as late as you can get away with.
Essentially, you want to give the garlic enough time to become established underground, but not so much time that the plants begin to send up a lot of green growth before winter really sets in. Severe cold weather can “burn” the tips of the leaves, which can compromise the development of strong, healthy bulbs underground.
How to Plant Garlic
Garlic prefers deeply cultivated soil, so before planting you will want to till or fork your bed down to about a foot deep. For good measure, shovel a solid inch of compost across the bed and use a fork to work it in well. If your soil is pretty compacted like ours, and you don’t need to plant immediately, now is a good time to water the heck out of your bed and allow it to soak in overnight.
Break your bulbs up into individual cloves, taking care not to remove the shell. Plant cloves about 3 inches deep, with the pointed end up. A soil knife is very useful here, but not necessary. Space cloves 6 inches apart.
Cover with a pretty deep mulch, preferably several inches of straw or shredded leaves. You want this mulch to be thick enough to keep down any weeds that might try to pop up in your garlic bed, because you won’t be disturbing this area for at least six months or so. Mulch will also help keep your garlic warm and cozy underground for the duration of the winter.
How to Harvest and Process Garlic
The following spring, you can remove your mulch cover to allow the ground beneath to warm up. Keep your garlic watered and weed-free, and harvest in summer when the tops have started to die back but there are still a few green leaves remaining. Harvest like you would a potato or a carrot, using a fork just outside the bed to loosen the soil so you can gently pry up the bulb with its greens intact. Handle the bulbs carefully to prevent bruising.
Take some green garlic to your kitchen right away and cook something special with it. For the rest of your bulbs, let them cure in a dry, warm, airy place away from direct sunlight for a week, then gently brush off any soil from the bulbs and clip the roots down to half an inch long. Wait another week and then clip off the stems of your hardnecks, or braid your softnecks, and then store them somewhere cool and dry.
Garlic, more so than some other cultivated plants, is capable of fine-tuning its growth and development over a growing season to suit its particular conditions, so it’s a great idea to save some of your own homegrown garlic cloves for planting next year. Pick out a couple of the biggest, prettiest bulbs you’ve got and do your best not to eat them through the summer months. They’ll be specially adapted for your garden, and you’ll save a fair amount of money by not having to buy more seed stock.
Most varieties will keep for about 4-8 months. Alliums like garlic will sprout in the presence of ethylene gas, which is produced by fruits like apples, tomatoes, and bananas as they ripen, so keep your garlic separated in storage.
Garlic is best stored raw, but there are many ways of processing it for culinary use that will extend its life for years into the future. You can make garlic powder by drying and grinding your cloves. You can also make garlic infused oils and vinegars for cooking. I’m told that whole cloves are great to add to your ferments, but I have yet to experiment with this.
Once you start growing your own garlic, you will come to cherish every individual clove in ways you couldn't possibly imagine. As you're digging up the season's harvest, you'll certainly be daydreaming about next year. And since it's so easy to propagate, you'll have a lifetime supply at your disposal after your first season. If you ask me, that's true wealth.