After my first summer of growing a "real" garden is starting to wind down, I'm realizing that I've learned a lot. There are some things that I will definitely do again, and others that I will change slightly. Since my garlic was the first thing planted (way back in October of last year), it was also one of the first things to be harvested.
I now consider myself to be slightly knowledgeable in growing garlic, so I will share what I've learned with you. After all, it's only a couple of months until you could be planting your own garlic to come up next spring.
Although garlic can be planted in the spring, it is usually recommended to plant in the fall for larger, more flavorful garlic. However, if you live in an area that gets very cold winters, it can be risky since the garlic may not survive the winter.
I planted mine in mid-October. The instructions on the package said to cover the planted cloves over with mulch, but I neglected to do this as I was in a rush to leave on a trip. Since it was one of the coldest winters Wisconsin has seen in years, I didn't think it would come up in the spring. When May rolled around, I was surprised to see my garlic sprouts coming up.
The garlic you plant looks just like a head of garlic you would buy at the grocery store. However, don't try to plant your grocery store garlic, since that's not what it's meant for and it might not work. To plant your garlic, separate the gloves and plant them a few inches deep, several inches apart in a row. The package will have detailed instructions.
Garlic Growing Maintenance:
After planting, your garlic will be pretty low maintenance. Other than weeding, the only thing you will have to do before harvesting is to remove the scapes.
Garlic scapes are basically the flower shoots that come up early in the summer. They will be obviously different than the rest of the leaves: round stalks with a bit of a curl to them and a pointy end (see top photo).
Don't throw them away - the scapes can be eaten raw with dip (if you don't mind some pretty monstrous garlic breath for a few hours after) or used in place of garlic in recipes. The resulting flavor is a little milder than garlic cloves.
Harvesting your Garlic:
Garlic is ready to harvest when the leaves begin to die. The timing can be a little tricky: if you harvest too early, your bulbs will be small. But if you wait too long, they will get too big and the bulbs will start to separate and not store as long. The most specific bit of info I could find was to harvest when about half of the leaves are dead and brownish-yellow, in late July or August for Northern climates.
I ended up pulling mine up in mid-July, following the half-dead-leaves rule. My garlic heads were certainly smaller than grocery store varieties, with maybe 3-5 cloves/head. Perhaps if I'd left them another week or so they would have gotten bigger. Who knows.
I found it very tempting to try to just pull the garlic out by it's leaves. Don't try this. It doesn't work. The leaves will pull right off, leaving you digging for a head of garlic that you ultimately will never find. Dig the garlic up with a small trowel, being careful not to cut into the heads when you're digging. I did that too.
Your work is not over when the garlic is harvested. In order for it to store over the next few months, it needs to be cured first. Fortunately, this is a pretty simple process. First brush any excess dirt off. Then simply lay the garlic out flat in a cool, dry spot (I kept mine in the basement). Do not remove the leaves or roots. They need to be intact while the garlic dries out. Leave them there for about a month.
How to Store Garlic:
After your curing time is up, trim the leaves and roots of the garlic heads and store them as you would grocery store garlic: in a cool, dry, dark place. You can also replant this garlic in the fall if you want.
Garlic is definitely one of the easier plants to grow. You don't have to scramble to use it up since you can store it for so long. I will definitely be planting it again in a couple of months.
However: if you only have very limited growing space, I would not recommend planting garlic for the following reasons. It's easy to come by and cheap, and I haven't noticed that the quality of garlic that I grew is any better than what I normally buy. Use your limited space for something that you'll really enjoy. But if you do have lots of space, go for it.