6 Mistakes to Avoid When Planting Garlic
by Petra Page-Mann of Naples, NY
Garlic is one of the easiest and most rewarding crops to grow, though often deceptively simple. I’ve grown garlic here in the Finger Lakes of New York since I was a child in my father’s garden and am honored to share the keys to surrounding yourself with abundance.
Choosing the Best Garlic to Plant
As we all know (and mostly have learned the hard way), what you reap is what you sow. Considering how long your garlic is in the ground and how much time you’ll likely invest in weeding and feeding them, it’s worth the extra dollars to sow the best stock possible.
Biggest Mistake: Planting anything but the biggest and healthiest organic garlic bulbs you can find. Resist any urge is simply plant bulbs from a grocery store.
Why? There is a direct relationship between the size of bulbs and cloves you plant and the size of the bulbs and cloves you’ll harvest. ‘Bigger truly is better’ is rarely true, though in the case of garlic ‘seed stock,’ it is. Organic stock makes your crop more resilient, as well as helping our planet. Also, garlic sold as food is notably smaller than seed grade, so resist all temptation.
Easy Solution: Don’t skimp! Ask your local organic growers if they have any seed stock they’ll be willing to sell you. In 2020, Fruition grew twelve thousand gorgeous organic seedstock bulbs of garlic of many different varieties, each well-adapted to our short seasons. You’ll find them at www.fruitionseeds.com.
When to Plant Garlic
Garlic is planted in fall, allowing the cold to divide each clove into the bulb to come. Late September to Thanksgiving is optimal. Your goal is for each clove to establish its root system while growing as little shoot as possible.
Biggest Mistake: Planting too early without mulch.
Why? Garlic establishes its root system before sending up a green shoot. Planted too early, the green shoot can rise several inches, acting as a straw over the winter to draw water from the clove, sometimes desiccating the clove and potentially killing it. Six inches of mulch will ease all worries.
Easy Solution: Plant between late September and Thanksgiving, promptly covering with 6 inches of mulch.
It’s best to err on the side of planting late, rather than too early.
Preparing Soil for Garlic
We till the soil for our garlic bed as close to planting as possible, which can be tricky in the cool, wet soils of autumn. We’ve taken to tilling in early September and tarping to keep soil light and friable until we’re ready to plant. Before we work the soil, we add 2-3 inches of compost as well as Fruition’s organic garlic & shallot fertilizer for full-spectrum, slow-release nutrition for the soil as well as the crop. The key ingredients are alfalfa meal, feather meal, kelp meal, blood meal and composted chicken manure. My partner Matthew has been perfecting our amendments for garlic & shallots over the years. In 2020, over 95% of the 12,000 bulbs we grew were seed stock quality; there are many variables, but we’re pretty confident our blend tips the balance.
Biggest Mistake: Not enough fertility added or too much nitrogen added.
Why? Garlic is a ‘heavy feeder,’ so it will not grow large if nutrients are lacking. If its fertility is too nitrogen-rich, however, garlic will focus on vegetative growth, resulting in large leaves above small bulbs. Excess nitrogen also decreases storage life.
Easy Solution: Add rich, well-balanced compost as you prepare your soil, as well as organic slow-release fertilizer for robust soil and plant health as well as abundance to harvest.
Spread and incorporate soil amendments prior to planting. We add compost as well as slow-release, organic granular fertilizer to nourish the soil as well as our garlic in the seasons to come.
How to Plant Garlic
First things first! Break each bulb into individual cloves and plant each clove tip up and root plate down.
Common Mistake: Planting cloves upside down.
Why? Garlic will only grow roots and shoots from specific places in its clove. When planted upside down, the shoot will go down and force its way to the sky despite making way more work for your garlic to thrive. This also makes it more challenging to harvest, cure and store your garlic.
Easy Solution: Sow both garlic and shallots root down, tip up.
Optimum Garlic Spacing
Garlic is ideally planted with six inches between cloves, both in and between rows. We give a little more space, sowing with eight-inch centers, because we want to limit competition between plants both above and below the ground.
Common Mistake: Planting too close.
Why? Too close, garlic plants will compete with each other, to their detriment. Their roots compete for the same, finite nutrients. Leaves overlap, competing for sunlight.
Easy Solution: Bring a yardstick or some other measurement tool to the garden, helping keep you on-point, not too close or too far.
Plant your garlic with at least six inches between cloves. We plant on a staggered grid, three rows per bed.
How Deep to Plant Garlic
Planting depth makes all the difference. If you’re planning on spreading six inches of mulch, planting your garlic only one to two inches is plenty. If you’re not sure you’ll have a full six inches of mulch, sow at least four to five inches deep.
Common Mistake: Not planting deep enough.
Why? Planted in fall and not growing rapidly until spring, garlic experiences the most dramatic freeze-thaw frost heaving of the season, bringing each clove to the surface if they’re not deep enough. Garlic will tolerate impressively cold temperatures but quickly succumbs to desiccating winter winds at the soils’ surface.
Easy Solution: Work soil well, so it’s easy to plant as deep as you need. And mulch!
If your soil is freshly worked and not too wet, planting three to five inches deep is easy just with your hands. A trowel is perfect to get a few extra inches of easy depth in denser soils.
Garlic: To mulch or not to mulch?
Until recently, I’ve always planted garlic and immediately spread six inches (often more!) of straw or shredded leaf mulch to cover. These last few years we’ve been experimenting with other techniques, which have a lot of merit, though we’ve returned to mulching. My favorite mulches are straw, grass clippings, deciduous leaves sent through a chipper/shredder and, believe it or not, moldy alfalfa hay.
Common Mistake: Not mulching if you don’t always weed thoroughly or on-time. Mulching too little when you do mulch, resulting in more work and more weeds.
Why? Garlic is only an easy crop if you manage it more or less perfectly. It can easily become weedy, whether you mulch or not. The trick with mulch: Be sure you’re adding a lot, knowing it will decompose and condense, and be prepared to hand-weed a bit and add several inches more mulch once and often twice in spring.
Easy Solution: Spread six inches of mulch or more as soon as you sow, spreading more in spring as needed. We spread three inches of weed seed-free alfalfa hay as the bottom layer with three inches of straw on top, for the best of both worlds.
Spread six inches of mulch or more as quick as you can after planting. Have plenty of mulch on-hand to add more in spring.
Friends, I’m delighted you’re planting garlic this season! For dozens of video tutorials guiding you through the seasons with how-to video tutorials, enjoy our free Organic Garlic & Shallot Academy, available at www.fruitionseeds.com
Planting garlic is one of the final moments in the garden we enjoy each season, a radical act of faith that even as one season ends, another begins. Garlic is a living link between seasons, between generations, as are you.
Sow Seeds & Sing Songs