As most gardeners are cleaning up their vegetable garden beds, there’s one savory edible that can be planted now for an early summer harvest. It’s time to plant garlic.
Planting garlic (Allium sativum), a crop native to Central Asia and grown for more than 5,000 years, is a quintessential fall garden activity. There are so many unique and flavorful varieties accessible to growers that are seldom offered for consumers to purchase.
Because garlic plants rarely produce seed, new bulb propagation is done by planting a single whole clove. Fall planting in October and November is best for our regional climate as bulb development is highly dependent on day length and temperature. It takes about one to two months at 40-degrees (Fahrenheit) to stimulate garlic to grow a new plant that will bulb. Fall planting provides a necessary cold period and the early growth in spring should produce large enough above-ground growth to support new bulb development. Plants are usually ready for harvest in late June to early July.
Spring planting is possible, but can be risky if weather delays your ability to get into the garden early enough. Moreover, local nurseries are more likely to carry seed garlic (i.e. cloves) in the fall. Research from Kansas State University conducted in Manhattan shows that planting dates ranging from September 24 to November 24 resulted in consistently good bulb size and yield, while plantings from late December thru February correlated with decreasing average bulb size.
When selecting your seed, there are two main categories to choose from — hardneck and softneck. Hardneck varieties have a solid central seed stalk, more uniform cloves that are larger and easier to peel, more variations in color, unique flavor differences, and are very winter hardy. Softneck varieties have no central seed stalk, the tops can be braided, usually stores longer, are less winter hardy and may not be as flavorful.
Seed cloves are usually sold as whole bulbs. And although it varies between varieties, one pound of garlic can plant a 30-foot row.
To plant, gently separate cloves, keeping the paper like outer layer intact. Select large garlic cloves that are uniform and firm. Plant cloves two to three inches deep into loose soil with the pointed end covered but going up. Space cloves four to five inches apart within each row and put eight to 10 inches of space between rows. This is also generally a good time to take a soil test, which will help you determine the fertility needs for your garlic and other next season plantings.
Mulching with straw is not required, but it can provide better growing conditions. When you apply the mulch, sprinkle a little loose soil over the mulch and wet it down. This will prevent the loose mulch from blowing away. After a rain, the mulch will settle in around the plants and will remain in place through the rest of the winter.
Garlic cloves planted in October thru early November will start to send up shoots in late winter. Throughout the spring, garlic will produce lush green stalks with several tiers of keeled leaves. Green garlic, i.e. immature plants, can be harvested at any time during the spring before the bulb is full formed. These look like thicker scallions or spring onions and can be used in a similar way, but have a more pungent garlic flavor.
Unlike onions, you should harvest mature garlic when the leaves begin to brown, but at least five to six leaves are still green—roughly 60 percent of the plant. Cure in a warm, dry, shaded and well aerated location for a couple weeks until the stem is completely dry and loses all its’ green color. After curing, garlic stored at cool temperature (ideally 60 degrees in basement or cellar) in mesh bags or paper sacks packed loosely can maintain their quality for three to four months.
Story and photo: Zac Hoppenstedt, Horticulture Agent, Johnson County K-State Research and Extension