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Growing Garlic & Alliums

Updated on May 4, 2016

Two things made me interested in growing my own garlic. The first was trying lots of varieties at the farmer's market and realizing different types of garlic could be really different. The second thing that made me interested in growing my own garlic was learning I could overwinter it where I live, which not only made it virtually no-care, but took advantage of a time when the garden had tons of room in it.

I also grow some ornamental alliums (the plant family that garlic belongs to) and am going to try a very funky variety called "hair" alliums.

softneck garlic, photo by Euryale Sinclair
softneck garlic, photo by Euryale Sinclair

The Garlic Experiment

If there was one thing I really loved at the Farmer's Market this past summer, it was trying lots of different types of garlic. At the supermarket, garlic is just "garlic" and you have no idea where it comes from. When you look at garlic production, 75% is in China and 2% is in the USA, so switching to locally-grown garlic is a good idea.

What I learned sampling garlics is that I like a hotter garlic than I might have initially guessed. Buying from local growers, most of my garlics came with a variety name and the farmer could describe the qualities and suggest ways of cooking. I learned I like to eat hotter garlic than I would have guessed initially. One variety I tried had fantastic flavor, but I found the teeny, purple cloves had a thick layer of skins and were a pain to peel. Some garlics have double layers of cloves, some make flatter cloves and elephant garlic only seems good for roasting when you're having a dinner party and can feed the huge things to a group.

Since garlic overwinters, there's more room in the garden for it and you don't have to contend with insects pests hardly at all. In fact, by its very nature, garlic wards off a lot of insects all by itself, so it can be a good companion plant to other veggies. One of my garden books said that garlic can sometimes make peas, beans and other legumes unhappy, so I picked a spot in the garden away from where those things will be planted next spring.

For my first experimental growing, I got organic varieties at the Farmer's Market to plant. All you have to do is break up the heads and plant the individual cloves.

The Garlic Grower's Bible

Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers
Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers

The author of this book has grown something like 400 different variations of garlic on his farm over the years, which pretty much beats out everyone else for experience and advice.


Soft-neck vs Hard-neck

Most of what you'll buy in the supermarket is "soft-neck" garlic. It's got lots of papery layers of skin on it, called parchment, has a longer storage life (some types can store for a year) and can be made in braided plaits.

For those of you who like a hotter garlic, you'll want to try growing "hard-neck" garlic. The central stem is more like a stick and the parchment on the cloves are thinner and easier to peel. It can be kept in storage for several months.

When To Plant Garlic

Planting garlic is most often done in the fall season. Depending on where you live, this can be anywhere from October to December. The most important factor is that it's best to get garlic in the ground a few weeks before the first frost so that it can start to root and get established before that first cold snap. The cold is actually part of what triggers garlic to start making cloves so if you wish to overwinter your garlic, don't plant too late!

Other Alliums

Alliums are the plant family that includes garlic, onions and leeks. In fact, those huge elephant garlic cloves are actually a type of leek.

There are edible and decorative allium types. We've already got two other types of alliums in our garden. One is chives which a lot of people grow. They are very tiny and mild in flavor compared to garlic and onions and grow very easily in pots.

I also have a variety called "society garlic" and it's an ornamental. A friend gave me a small shoot of it years ago and it's grown from that one sprig of leaves into a little cluster of bulbs in a pot. The purple flowers it makes aren't a tight ball like other ornamentals, and looks more like a spray of flowers. It doesn't flower until later summer and early fall.

I have a brand-new ornamental vareity that I'm going to grow in a pot called "hair allium." (that's what is shown in the picture here) These are a mutation of regular alliums and the flower they make are a purple center with very twisted green "hairs" coming off it in every direction. I've heard them called "totally ugly," "weird," "space alien flowers" and "like a Dr. Suess plant" and fell in love with them immediately when I saw a picture at the flower bulb sellers booth at the Farmer's Market in late September. I got eight bulbs for $5 and I really hope they are as weird as other web sites say.

Garlic Gardening Videos

Overwintering Garlic

I went with the winter garlic plan as I've got a small backyard and growing space is at a premium. Since garlic can withstand the cold of winter, it made much more sense to grow it then as opposed to over the summer.

My garlic went into the ground in early October. And that was pretty much all I saw of it until about March. Then the garlic tops, called "scapes," stared to appear. The picture you see here is one of the more robust plants, photographed in early April.

I'll let it keep growing until sometime in June. When the flowers start to appear, I'll snip them off so that the plant directs all of it's energy into making the bulbs.

Garlic Scapes - Did you know you can eat the tops of garlic too?

If you are growing hardneck garlic, like I am, there's a second yummy, edible part of the plant for you to use. The young tops of this type of garlic is called a "scape." By cutting this part off before it turns into a flower, you divert more of the plant's energy down to the growing bulbs which increases yield. And you get to eat the part you cut off.

You want to make sure to cut the garlic scapes off BEFORE they straighten out, as they get bitter and/or will blossom into a flower. Once they've gotten nice and curly, they are mature enough to eat and young enough to still be tender.

Most often they are cooked in with stir-fry dishes but they are also suitable for making pesto. This is my first year harvesting scapes so I'll link up some recipes once I figure out what I like best.

If you've grown garlic, please let me know if you have any tips or tricks that helped. If you're like me and just starting, let me know how it's going with you. And if you've got any other comments or questions, those are welcome too!

Garlic Gossip

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    • profile image

      GordyM 6 years ago

      This lens interests me, I have long been interested in growing my own garlic and for sure I will have some in my garden soon after reading this lens

    • Euryale Sinclair profile image

      Euryale Sinclair 9 years ago from The Left Coast

      Danny, I'm pretty sure if you had one container that was both broad and deep, you could get a little garlic harvest going.

    • profile image

      dannystaple 9 years ago

      Mmm - hotter garlic sounds good. I wander how much room it takes to grow a couple of garlic bulbs. Can it be done in a container garden?

    • chefkeem profile image

      Achim Thiemermann 9 years ago from Austin, Texas

      I didn't know about "hotter" garlic - gotta talk to my farmers market friends about it. A hearty SquidAngel Blessing for this aromatic lens!

    • Wbisbill LM profile image

      Barbara Isbill 9 years ago from New Market Tn 37820

      Great lens - 5 stars - Garlic lover here!