The growth-cycle of garlic.

Posted on June 25, 2011


Garlic hanging

Today is a cool summer day here in central PA, with a high of a heavenly 75 F. Even so, I can hardly conjure up the memory of those chilly days last fall that found us on our hands and knees poking garlic cloves into the ground. At that time of year, the garden is wrapping up for the most part, and planting the garlic is one of the farewell tasks. It wants just enough time for the roots to begin to grow before the first freeze hits. They need a bit of cold weather before they’ll really start to sprout. The garlic incubates in the ground all winter, and provides some much needed excitement the next spring when it provides some early green to otherwise freezing, drizzly, muddy-brown gardens.

This is our second year of growing garlic in our community garden plot. Apparently people pay a lot of money for garlic starters, and three “units” (or heads) are going for around $15 on a major seed website today. This makes sense if your aim is to avoid the typical store variety, which is a genetic picked with storage, friendliness to the bumps and tossing of machine harvesting, and transportation ability in mind. If you need to pay $5 for a head of garlic that has qualities (such as taste) outside of this CV, well, maybe make sure it is a one-time purchase? For our garden, this year’s stock came directly from a few normal heads that we could have eaten, but opted to plant instead. One bulb’s worth of cloves was saved from last season, which in turn came from a garlic from a CSA box the year before. The rest of our crop came from some heads purchased for 75 cents from a favorite stand at the Boalsburg Farmer’s Market, Littlefield Farm.  I mentioned that it was for planting, and Tom dug down for the choicest heads he had to provide good characteristics for the next generation. Basically, you pick what you like to eat, while considering flavor, size, and hardiness. From there all it took was to break apart the individual cloves, and put them in the ground. Basically!

Out in the garden in October, each clove needs a bit of fare-well attention because they have to be tucked-in with the root part down and the point upwards. This keeps the garlic from tunneling to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or wherever is straight down from where you live.

Prepping garlic beds

Prepping the Garlic Beds

Basically, the cloves need only exact-ish spacing of 4-6 inches from their neighbors so that they can develop to full size, and need to be deep enough to have two inches of soil on top of it. For me, it is always easiest to just push my hands into the dirt of the bed and draw a trench down its length. The dirt has been worked enough each year that it is very easy to do. If you plan on putting garlic out in an area that hasn’t been gardened before, like freshly turned grass, you should spade around to loosen the soil at least five inches down so the roots can spread as the plant grows. Work like this gets easier every year as the soil unpacks and is lightened by harvesting, weeding, and end-of-the-year cleanup.

[Note: If you live in a climate without a winter, then you need to prep your garlic with a stay in the fridge for three weeks before you plant. I’ve heard. But you don’t get to have snowball fights, so nah nah.]

garlic... still growing - april 24

Early Spring in Garlic Land

Somehow, even though it seems unlikely that two cloves could have been accidentally planted together, a few of the plantings grew as twins. Some of the dual-bulbs were both evenly full-sized, but others showed that one plant out-performed the other. In every case, though, the total production was at least as good as our general single bulb. I have a theory that some may have begun as very tiny, dual-cloved entities that looked like about the right size as a regular clove. Or, maybe they just vary? I’ll pay more attention this year to see if this is how it happened.

what a scape looks like, week 1

This is what a scape looks like.

By mid-spring, the garlic is up and leafy while everything else is puny. It lifts the spirits, and gives a sense of promise while the world is coming alive again. During their growth, garlics are low-maintenance. Because they grow so early, they out-compete many weeds. Some will still come up, and it is good to keep them weeded. But we’ve also done crazy things like growing radishes down the middle of rows to take advantage of the shade.


All grown up: This is also what a scape looks like.

Then the first scapes appear. This is a long, curling, pointed shoot, and if left on your plant it will turn into a flower. Though not-unbeautiful, they’ve got to go. We heard some lore about taking them off so that the plants focus on developing the bulb in the ground. The garlic is thinking: I’ve got two options. 1. Flower (sex), and live on for the ages through reproduction.* 2. Something ate my flower, so now I’ll store up energy in my root (the bulb) and give it a try again next year while the juices are flowing. This is pretty true, but from experience I’d say that the garlic bulb is pretty well developed by the time the scapes will flower. Rather than producing more growth, it seems more accurate to say that removing the scape keeps the plant from metabolizing the already-stored energy for its next phase of growth. Within a three week window or so, the scapes appear, grow long, and then the leaves begin to yellow and fall over – a sure sign that harvest time is here. We were still taking the last un-blossomed scapes off on the day of harvest, and all is well.

*Update: This part about flowering seems to be not exactly accurate, though it is the reasoning behind the lore. The scape is trying to form “bulbils,” which can be planted and will eventually form garlics in one to three years. They are not flowers, though they look flowery. It comes down to the means of reproduction, I guess. The bulbils don’t swap genetic material, and plants grown from them will be genetically identical to the original, as is also the case with the clove method. They avoid soil borne diseases, and there are many more of them to plant so that you can sell / use all of your garlic if you care to. Doing it this way seems to be more for farm-volume production. Putting the cloves in the ground is still a good approach, and you get garlic bulbs in one year. Going the bulbil route can sometimes take two or three years, and you still have to dig them up over the winter.  Taking the scapes off does have the benefit of keeping the bulb large, as described above, since the plant doesn’t use up that energy growing bulbils.

Garlic bulb

Harvest Time

The scapes are ready to come off whenever you get around to it, but definitely if they are curled. They have a good garlic flavor, and store well in the fridge until you’re ready to eat them. Just slice them up into little rounds if cooking them. If they’re going into something without cooking, like potato salad, I like to slice them in half long-ways first so that they are easier to dice finely.

Garlic Harvest Pile

Pile o' garlic

There are two types of garlic: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck garlic produces scapes, does better in northern climates, but stores for a shorter time in the cellar. Softneck is typically what you find in the grocery stores; it does not produce a scape, is typically grown in southern climates but some types can do well up north, and stores longer. There is a good conversation about planting experience here.  We used our garlic for months and into the spring last year before it ran out, which was hardneck and lasted well. A few had started turning green at the core, ready to grow. Whatever. Still good to eat! To get over the hump of no-garlic cloves in the spring is easy anyway. There were spring garlics at the market, chives in the yard, and scapes on the way. Cooking with green garlic is fun, offers a variety, and is very welcome after a winter of storage veg.

Garlic hanging

Garlic Curing

The next step is curing the garlic for winter storage. Rub off the dirt, as the moisture will promote dampness and spoilage in the bulbs. Trim the roots short with scissors. Leave on the outermost layer of papery skin, even though it has already begun to decompose in the ground. This can be removed later after it dries if it bothers you. Hang them somewhere with descent circulation, cool temps, and out of the light. Basements can be damp, but will work better than nothing. The rafters of barns also work, but we don’t have a barn. (Yet.) Softnecks can be braided for country-chic décor. Hardnecks are more rigid, but can be tied into bundles of ten with a little butcher twine. They can also be dried on flat surfaces, but that looks less cool. Our garlic stays hanging all winter, but if space is an issue the tops can be removed once the bulb has dried out and developed its typical papery feel.

This year the garlic came out during the same week as the summer solstice, making it a true spring crop. From its first showings in the dreariness of early Spring, its lush green two-foot leaves, the first sightings of scapes and the quick growth of their tight spirals, and to the harvest of big bulbs just in time for summer, garlic is a perfect calendar that rewards each new part of Spring with a bit of excitement. The dried bulbs in turn speak of fall, and in no time at all it will be time to tuck them in the ground again for the next season! Quite a lot to think about when dicing fragrant, delicious garlic all winter!

From two beds about six feet in length and three feet wide, planted with two rows each about a foot apart, our year-two haul is 57 heads of garlic. More than one head of garlic a week for two people. At our farmer’s price of .75 cents per head, that comes to a value of $42.75. Will we need more next year? I hope so!

Posted in: garden