If you’re anything like me, you use a lot of garlic in the kitchen. So why not grow your own? You can grow varieties across all regions for cooking, roasting, and even fermenting. Plus, it’s a set-it-and-forget-it kind of crop with great health benefits, too! Here, we’ll discuss 15 common mistakes when planting and growing garlic.
Avoid these common pitfalls so you can produce beautiful, hardy heads of garlic for use all year. Let’s jump in!
Not Preparing Your Soil Properly
To successfully transform a grassy area into a garlic garden, be ready for several months of preparation.
Outcome: This garlic mistake leads to stunted growth and poor yields due to poor nutrition.
Solution: This bulb needs well-draining soil that’s balanced in acidity. Above 6.5 pH is ideal; add lime if the pH is too low. As garlic is in the ground for several months and could experience lots of rain and snowmelt, the rot risk increases if the soil holds onto all that moisture.
Pro tip: If you are converting a grass area to a new garden plot intended for garlic, prepare to spend a few months prepping it. Mow it low and tarp it to kill back grass and weeds. Then, add lots of organic matter, soil test, and amend according to the results. Alternatively, you can use raised beds.
Not Controlling Weeds Before Planting
It’s essential to combat weed germination during the critical early stage of above-ground growth.
Outcome: If the weeds compete with your alliums, there won’t be enough nutrition, sunlight, or resources left to form a full-size bulb.
Solution: Be sure your weed seed bank is low by tarping for a few weeks or months or flame weeds before planting, and use biodegradable mulch or landscape fabric. Proper mulching will also help suppress weeds that may have germinated in the fall or early spring.
When you pull back the mulch in the spring to fertilize, run a wire weeder or swivel hoe through the rows to terminate spring weed germination. Do this every few weeks during the first two months of above-ground growth, as this is the most crucial stage, and competition from weeds can have dire effects.
Choosing the Wrong Variety For Your Region
Consider your growing location and intended purposes when deciding between hard-neck and soft-neck.
Outcome: This garlic-growing mistake is a big one. If you select a variety not ideal for your growing region, your garlic plants could die in the winter temperatures, not bulb up to the proper size, or not cure or store properly.
Solution: There are key differences between hardneck and softneck that should help you decide which type is right for you, both for your growing region and desired uses. These varieties have a window of overlap, and a large portion of the continental US can grow both types.
|Hardneck Garlic||Softneck Garlic|
|Preferred climate||Colder zones 4-9, where winters tend to be cooler and soil temps stay below 45 degrees for at least a month||Warmer zones 7-11 with hot summers and relatively mild winters|
|Requires vernalization (cold exposure)||Yes||No|
|Storage life||3-5 months in ideal conditions||6-9 months in ideal conditions|
|Neck characteristics||Stiff||Pliable, good for braiding|
|Clove characteristics||Fewer but larger cloves, easy to peel||More but smaller cloves, harder to peel|
Vernalization: A cold period required by some varieties during germination. Suppose you live in zone 10 or 11 and want to grow a variety that requires vernalization. In that case, you can trick them into believing they experienced winter by cooling them in the refrigerator for 4-8 weeks.
Check out this video for tips on successfully growing hardneck garlic in zone 10b!
Fertilizing Improperly in the Fall Upon Planting
Nitrogen is pivotal in stimulating foliage development, particularly during the initial growth phases.
Outcome: Don’t make the mistake of forgetting to fertilize your beds. Garlic won’t sprout and root properly if the soil nutrition is off, leading to stunted growth or failure to thrive.
Solution: This is a heavy nitrogen feeder, so it should receive a lot of nutrients in both the fall and early spring, in addition to a broadcast of a well-balanced fertilizer and any recommendations based on soil tests. Nitrogen promotes foliage growth, which is important in the beginning growth stages. Good options for this are chicken manure pellets or seaweed extract.
Planting Too Early
Abrupt temperature spikes can lead to early shoot formation.
Outcome: If there is a sudden temperature spike after planting your garlic, the plant might think it’s spring and send up green shoots above the soil surface. The green shoot could allow air to get in, causing the bulb to dry out and possibly lead to death. Alternatively, the green shoot may be susceptible to full freezing conditions and can die back, again possibly leading to plant death.
Solution: Most growers plant garlic in the fall for a summer harvest. The extended temperatures during October/November and the first frost date matter most for picking your planting date. Soil temperatures must have cooled to 50°F, and there should not be a sudden spike in temperatures for a few days or more after you have planted.
Planting Too Late
Check the forecast to avoid extended periods of hot weather after planting.
Outcome: If your garlic does not have enough time to establish a solid root system, it’s unlikely to survive the winter.
Solution: Plant 6-8 weeks before your area’s first potential frost date if you live in a colder growing region. Look ahead at the forecast to ensure there won’t be an extended period of hot weather after you plant.
If you live in an area that does not get hard freezes, keep a close eye on the forecasted temperatures and be ready to plant when the conditions are ideal. Sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving usually works. The goal is to hit that sweet spot of allowing enough of a root system to form but not enough growth to cause your garlic to grow upwards and emerge.
Planting Cloves Too Closely
Ensure ample room for bulbs to develop fully without any wasted open space.
Outcome: This is an easy mistake to make. We want more garlic, so we plant more. Like other crops, if space is limited and plants are crowded, growth can be stunted, disease can strike, and yields can decrease.
Solution: If growing in a 30-inch bed, the recommended spacing is three cloves across, 6 inches apart, with at least 18 inches between rows. Experiment with different spacing and record the results as they differ from region to region and by variety.
You want to ensure enough room to bulb out fully while taking full advantage of your bed space and not having unused, open space.
Planting Cloves Upside Down
When planting a clove, remember that roots grow from the blunt end and the shoots grow from the pointed end.
Outcome: Roots and shoots will only emerge from one or a designated end of a garlic clove. If planted upside down, the shoot will still emerge and reach the soil surface. However, in doing so, it will need to use excess energy. This may result in misshapen or small bulbs and small yields.
Solution: Separate the cloves of your bulbs and keep the papery outer cover intact. Then, put the flatter root side facedown in the soil and the pointed side facing the sky.
Push cloves into the soil just a bit so they’re nice and snug. If you are mulching, plant cloves down three to four inches. If you are not mulching, six inches is recommended. Re-cover the cloves with soil. The roots will emerge from the bottom, and the shoot will emerge out the top when planted correctly.
Mulching Too Lightly
If the weather turns cold, cover the plants with mulch promptly.
Outcome: There is an increased risk of bulbs freezing early in the season before they have become established. Precipitation during winter could heave them out of the soil, leaving them exposed and vulnerable.
Solution: Mulch about two to three inches of seedless straw or mulched leaves after planting and leave it on until early spring. If you get a surge in temperatures in early spring, you can pull back the mulch temporarily and fertilize at this time, but be sure to cover them back up if it gets cold again.
Mulching Too Heavily
The key is maintaining a stable temperature around the garlic cloves to ensure their comfort and reduce stress.
Outcome: While mulch is essential, you don’t want to smother your crop. If the layer of mulch is too thick or you’ve planted too deeply and then layered the mulch on overtop, the garlic may not get the memo that spring has arrived and that it’s time to sprout, leaving you with stunted growth and low productivity.
Solution: The goal is to keep the temperature as consistent as possible so the bulbs are nice and cozy, free of stress. You don’t want to choke your garlic under a crazy thick layer of mulch. More is not better in this case, so stick to two to three inches of mulch.
Fertilizing Improperly During Bulb Growth
Always consult your soil test results to administer potassium and phosphorus nutrients correctly.
Outcome: This garlic mistake typically means bulbs may not grow large enough because the nutrients aren’t right.
Solution: When garlic is given the signal by nature that it’s spring, it starts to send energy above the soil to sprout and create leaves and scapes and, eventually, if given the chance, flowers. However, proper nutrition is required for this to happen, and it’s different than at the time of planting.
When days begin to lengthen, before the bulbs start to swell, switch your fertilizer to one that’s low in nitrogen and higher in potassium, which helps with bulb formation. Kelp meal and greensand are good options. Sidedress every few weeks during peak bulb formation.
Liquid fertilizers are available to plants immediately, whereas granular feeds take time, water, and microbial activity to break down. Remember to refer to your soil tests to feed with potassium and phosphorus properly.
To ensure optimal growth, water plants directly at their base.
Outcome: Watering overhead could lead to decreased yields and small bulbs.
Solution: Irrigate plants directly at the root level with one to two inches of water per week. Pay special attention during drought-like conditions, as garlic will not perform well if it doesn’t have enough moisture.
Irrigation is crucial during bulb development phases and should slow down or stop about two weeks before harvesting to avoid staining the papers (layered garlic skins). If you use drip lines, be sure each row has its own line to ensure even watering.
Water less frequently if you notice the soil is overly moist, which could negatively impact the quality. Mulching can help trap moisture so less watering can occur and allow your alliums to get what they need.
Forgetting to Snap-Off Scapes
As softneck garlic does not produce scapes or flowers, you won’t get an early scape harvest from softneck types.
Outcome: If garlic is left alone, the plant will spend energy forming a flower at the end of the scape, which may result in small bulbs. Removing the scapes about three weeks before harvest is thought to increase bulb size by 25% by some growers.
Solution: Start monitoring your plants in the spring. Depending on your region, scaping can begin from April through early June. You may notice a thick stalk shooting out of the middle of each plant. This is the delicious and edible garlic scape!
Since you want the plant to continue focusing its energy below the surface on growing the bulbs, snap these scapes off when they form. Just hold the scape at the base and snap it to one side. They have a gentler flavor and make a great spring pesto. Some varieties of garlic produce curled scapes, while others are straight. Be sure you remove the scape before the flower bulb at the end starts to swell.
Softneck garlic does not produce scapes or flowers in most conditions, so snapping scapes only applies if you grow hardneck varieties. Softneck stalks remain rather soft for this reason, making them flexible enough to braid. However, some softneck varieties can revert to a hardneck growing habit if grown in a particularly cold climate. If you see a rigid scape forming on a softneck, remove that too and expect to treat that plant as a hardneck.
Harvesting Too Early or Too Late
Harvesting at the optimal time is essential to achieve perfectly sized garlic.
Like other crops, harvesting garlic at just the right time is crucial to growing perfectly-sized garlic. Most will be ready to harvest in June, July, or August, depending on your growing zone and the variety.
Outcome: Bulbs are believed to double in size during the last month of growth, so if you harvest too early, you could be missing out on a lot of weight gains!
Solution: Keep your eye on the leaves of your garlic. If they still look lush and green, it’s too soon. If unsure, you can sacrifice a bulb or two to see how big the bulbs are. Cut across the bulb and have a look inside. The papers should be filled in with garlic cloves tightly.
Hardneck varieties will produce scapes before they start to bulb out. Removing those scapes will redirect the plant’s energy towards bulb production.
Outcome: If you leave garlic in the ground too long, especially if it is a particularly wet spring and summer, the chances increase of your garlic rotting in the ground, cloves starting to split apart from one another, becoming diseased, or rotting after being cured.
Solution: Harvest your garlic when about ⅓ of the leaves have yellowed and died back.
Pro tip: If you are in a particularly dry stretch of weather with some rain on the way, harvest now. Although you can harvest from wet soil, it will be messier, and topsoil will be lost. Less disturbance is best, so use a spading fork and do not fork into bulbs.
A caveat on harvest timing: In warmer growing regions, harvests are controlled heavily by temperatures as growth slows way down above 90° and can damage bulbs, whereas in cooler growing regions, harvests are controlled more by day length.
Not Properly Curing and Storing
It is advised to place a robust fan that directs airflow across the garlic to ensure optimal curing.
Outcome: Improperly cured garlic will not store as long, the flavor will not be as developed, and rot can occur.
Solution: After successfully growing and harvesting, don’t quit now! Move your harvested bulbs to a dry, dark space. Tie bunches of 8-10 plants with the leaves still attached on both sides of a large piece of strong string or jute and hang them over rafters or on large hooks. The bulbs will continue to pull energy from the leaves as they cure. If you have a drying rack, you can simply evenly spread the garlic lying flat, leaving space for airflow.
Positioning a strong fan to blow the air directly around your garlic while curing is recommended. You want any moisture to dry up from the bulbs and the stem and papery skin to firm up for ample storage time. Flavor is also developing during the curing process.
After about two to three weeks, depending on weather conditions and your setup, stems should be stiff and dry when you cut into them. This indicates proper curing. Hardneck stems can now be trimmed, loose dirt can be brushed off the roots, and one outer layer of paper can be removed. The paper will continue to provide protection, but if you sell your crop, you can remove the outer layer for cosmetic purposes.
Once cured and cleaned, store garlic in a dark, dry place between 68-86° in a relative humidity of less than 75% for best storage. Hard-neck garlic stores for 3-5 months, and soft-neck garlic stores for 6-9 months in ideal conditions.
Frequently Asked Questions
It is not recommended unless you’re 100% sure of the the source. These garlic bulbs may have been sprayed with an anti-sprout chemical to increase shelf-life, which would not result in a new garlic crop.
It’s best to order from a reputable source online, a local farm, or a farmers’ market. If you choose the local farm route, get to know their growing standards, ask for information on the growing variety, and get the best-looking and largest bulbs. Small cloves make small bulbs, and big cloves make big bulbs. Confirm that the seed garlic is nematode-free.
On average, hard-neck garlic bulbs produce 6-8 large cloves, whereas soft-neck garlic bulbs produce 10-40 small cloves, depending on the variety. Check with your supplier for each variety’s estimated number of cloves per head. Once you have determined how much garden space you want to devote to garlic, do the math for how many you will need and then set aside about 10% more than that to plan for some spoilage.
If purchasing by weight, approximately two to three pounds of garlic cloves should cover 100 feet of garden bed space. You’ll want to plant only the healthiest-looking and fully encased garlic cloves.
Presoaking may help with root formation and is an optional step. You’ll need:
A large bowl of water
1 ½ tbsp baking soda
A healthy sprinkle of kelp meal
Mix everything together and allow garlic cloves to soak for a few hours or overnight just before planting. Plant as usual.
Remember that this is not a required step, but may kickstart root formation. If you’d prefer to skip it, keep the soil consistently moist to ensure good root development.
The most worrisome pests of garlic include nematodes, thrips, onion maggots, cutworms, armyworms, and mites, which can be reduced or mitigated by getting good quality seed garlic, proper crop rotation, scouting regularly, and attracting or bringing in beneficial insects like ladybugs and braconid wasps.
Luckily, most critters avoid alliums, especially when many are planted together. Many gardeners intercrop garlic or onions with a desirable crop because their scent keeps pests away. Animals shouldn’t bother your garlic plants, except for voles in colder growing areas if you use landscape fabric or black tarps. They love to tunnel under the warmth of them and the protection they offer. The occasional curious skunk may dig up garlic cloves.
Yes! Sometimes called spring or green garlic, uncured garlic has a lighter, almost onion-like flavor. Chop it up finely and add to a homemade salad dressing or toss atop a cooked for a fresh garlic flavor. It won’t be nearly as intense, but it’s delicious and perfectly safe to eat.
Growing garlic is fun and rewarding if you like using it in the kitchen. Just be sure to properly prepare your soil and keep your plants cozy through the winter, and you should be styling come spring! When it comes to planting, harvesting, and curing garlic, timing is everything.