Garlic is a versatile crop for Gulf Coast gardens. It can be grown in the ground, in containers, in raised beds, and square foot gardens with equal success. Growing your own garlic opens the door to exploring the many different flavor profiles of this amazing herb – mild and sweet or hot and spicy.
As with many vegetables and herbs in the South, the keys to success are timing and choosing the right varieties. The reward is that garlic has many benefits to the urban homestead. Of course, we love to cook with it. But garlic also has uses in the home and garden. It can be used to make homemade insect repellents, and can be used in holistic pet & livestock care.
Garlic has been in cultivation for centuries. It is thought to have originated in Central Asia and it has been used since Neolithic times to flavor food. It has also been used as a medicinal herb by multiple cultures from ancient times until today. Creole garlics originated in Spain and were spread with the travels of the Conquistadors.
Garlics are divided into two main types – softnecks and hardnecks. This refers to the scape, or flowering stalk. Softnecks do not form a scape, hardnecks do. This will come into play in the Culture section below.
In general, softnecks are less hardy and prefer a warmer climate. They produce smaller bulbs and have a longer storage life. Hardnecks are quite hardy, produce a larger bulb, and have a shorter storage life. As usual, there are exceptions to these generalities. You will get to know the characteristics of the garlics you grow.
One difference to take into consideration when selecting garlic varieties is the content of allicin in the variety you choose. Allicin is the biologically active ingredient in garlic that has anti-microbial and health benefits. Hardnecks have up to 3X the allicin compared to softnecks.
Because the softnecks prefer a warmer climate, they are often favored in the coastal South, but many hardnecks will do well with proper vernalization. Vernalization is cold treatment, similar to that of blooming bulbs such as tulips. With garlic, this can be accomplished in the ground (over-wintering) or in the refrigerator.
Creole garlics are well suited for warm climates and are among the longest storing garlics. They are the rarest and most expensive of garlics, and have been a little hard to find until recently. They are heirlooms that are gaining popularity and availability as heirlooms are rediscovered and made available to home & market gardeners.
Buy garlic bulbs from the feed store. Do not try to grow grocery store garlic. You cannot verify whether it is a good variety for our area, and it may have been treated with a growth inhibitor or the basal plate may have been damaged.
When to plant
Garlic is a fall-winter-spring crop for the Gulf Coast. It is recommended that it be planted from mid-October through early December, but monitor the weather rather than watch the calendar. There are years when it is still quite warm in October, and even into early November.
If you are planting softneck varieties, you can be a bit more lax, but if you are planting a hardneck variety you need to take the vernalization requirement into consideration. Hardnecks can be vernalized in the ground if temperatures permit, but if it is still warm, and you wish to plant in October, you should be vernalizing the cloves in the refrigerator all through September.
Garlic needs a full sun location; a minimum of 6 – 8 hours of direct sun each day. It does not have to be planted in its own dedicated bed or row. Garlic can grow quite happily planted in your garden beds between other plants, like you would plant ornamental bulbs.
Garlic requires loose soil with lots of organic matter and good drainage. The largest bulbs will form in soils that include high quality compost. Apply ½ cup per square foot of balanced, slow-release, organic fertilizer before planting. Most garlic planting instructions recommend the addition of bone meal or rock phosphate. Soils in our area almost always provide adequate phosphorous, and this is not necessary. All of the slow release organic fertilizers that are available in our store are adequate for garlic.
Garlic does benefit from mycorrhizal fungi. The addition of fungal compost will inoculate the soil with these beneficial fungi. In addition, most slow release organic fertilizers contain mycorrhizal fungi. You can also add the dormant spores in a granular form.
Preparing for planting
Separate the cloves. Do this by hand so you do not bruise the cloves or damage the basal plate. Select the largest, plumpest cloves for planting. Discard any bruised or shriveled cloves, and any that have black spots or any sign of fungus. Fungus is one of the main reasons for crop failure.
Mix one quart of water, 1-TBSP of seaweed extract and 1-TBSP of baking soda, and stir until the baking soda is dissolved. Add the cloves and let them soak overnight. The baking soda will kill any spores of fungus that remain on the bulbs. You may not see any spores, but they can linger on the skins. Soaking overnight will allow the solution to soak completely through the skins and reach all the surface of the cloves. It will also soften the skins so you can remove them before you plant. It is not necessary to rinse the cloves. Just drain them and gently remove the skins with your fingers, taking care not to damage the basal plate.
Plant the bulbs about 4” – 6” deep in prepared soil. Some sources recommend 2” – 3”, but this is not good in the temperate South. The soil temperature is more stable at 4” – 6” and a larger bulb will result.
Plant the pointed end up and the basal plate down. This is critical in garlic or the bulb will be deformed. Space the cloves 4” – 8” apart in rows on 6” centers in wide beds, 4” – 6” apart in containers, and 4 per sqft in square foot gardens. Garlic does need room to grow and it will form more of a root system than you would expect.
Garlic does not compete well with weeds. Mulching will control weeds and will help to moderate the soil temperature, which should help with bulb formation.
Culture during growth
Side dress with the ¼ cup of slow release organic fertilizer about halfway through the growing season (first half of March or so). Do not fertilize after the end of April as this will cause the plant to develop top growth rather than bulb size.
Keep the soil free of weeds by hand-weeding if you have not mulched. To avoid damaging the roots or the developing bulbs, do not cultivate mechanically.
Garlic needs to be evenly moist, but never in soggy soils. It will benefit from drip irrigation. Garlic will continue to grow in drier soils, but flavor and bulb quality will suffer. Fortunately, since garlic is a fall and winter crop on the Gulf Coast, rainfall is usually sufficient until April, but monitor soil moisture closely. About an inch of water per week is sufficient for garlic.
If you are growing a hardneck variety, your garlic will need to be “scaped”. Scaping is the removal of the developing bloom stalk. Scapes are a false seedhead. The tip of the scape will contain a bulblet or bulbil. Removing the scape directs the plant’s energy into bulb development rather than further development of the bulblet. Scaping should be done when the head of the scape begins to curl down toward the stalk, like a goose or swan neck. This will help you identify the scapes, and not confuse them with the foliage.
Bulblets can be planted, but they take several years to develop an edible bulb and are generally not worth the effort. The scapes are considered a delicacy and can be prepared a variety of ways, a favorite being stir-fry.
You do not need to protect garlic from frosts and freezes. On the contrary, garlic loves the cold. Foliage will emerge when the temperature is conducive to growth. Different garlics will emerge at different times. Some may not send up foliage at all during winter, but the roots are growing the entire time.
Garlic will stop growing when the soil temperature reaches 80°F – 90°F. The bulb will not develop further. The lower leaves will yellow and then begin to turn brown. Harvest softneck varieties when the lower leaves have turned brown. Harvest hardnecks when about half their leaves have turned brown. This will generally occur about 3 – 4 weeks after the scapes appeared. Don’t wait until the entire stem of foliage is brown or the bulb may lose its protective skins and develop a root rot.
Harvest gently – new garlic bulbs are actually quite tender. Use a spading fork to loosen the soil and gently lift the bulb from the ground. Shake off the loose dirt, but do not wash with water. Water can lead to molds.
Trim the roots to ¼” or ½” long to prevent rot or fungal development. Do not trim the tops. Tie the tops together in groups of 5 – 6 plants and hang them in a dry, well-ventilated location out of direct sun. A garage, carport or covered patio is perfect as long as they can stay completely protected from rain and have sufficient airflow to prevent rot.
It’s best if the bulbs don’t actually touch each other. You can accomplish this by staggering them in the bunch or by spreading the stalk out with wadded up shopping bags, paper towels, or newspaper tucked between them. Garlic can also be laid out on a drying rack. It will take 4 – 6 weeks for the garlic to cure. It needs this time to dry, harden somewhat, and to develop the complex flavors we have come to enjoy.
During curing most of the loose soil will have fallen off the bulbs, but if any remains just rub it off the outer skins. After the garlic is cured, trim the tops (or braid them if you wish), re-trim any long roots to ¼” and brush any remaining soil out of them with a dry vegetable brush. Garlic will store for 6 – 9 months, depending on variety.