Garden Variety: Plant garlic in the fall for a summer harvest
Garlic is easy to grow and requires only a little space and care. It performs best when planted in late September to mid-October in Kansas and other places with seasonal temperature changes, so now is the time. Bulbs will be ready for harvest next year in late spring to midsummer depending on the variety.
Select a planting location with full sun and well-drained soil. If necessary, mix compost and/or organic matter into the soil prior to planting. Raised beds work well for garlic production. Containers are suitable if there is some protection from freezing and thawing. Wide, shallow containers work best.
Purchase garlic bulbs from a local garden center, organic section of the grocery store or online from reputable producers. Seed garlic or organic garlic is recommended over conventional grocery store garlic because that garlic may be treated with a growth inhibitor to prevent sprouting. If purchasing from a national or large producer, look for varieties suited for the Midwest as some varieties perform better in warmer or colder regions.
Select large, firm bulb that appears to be in good condition. When the planting area is ready, break the bulb apart into its smaller individual parts, called cloves. A bulb generally has a dozen or more cloves within it and each clove will grow into a new bulb. Some of the outer flaky skin may be removed to break the bulb into cloves but avoid peeling the cloves themselves.
Plant cloves 4 to 6 inches apart and deep enough that the top of the clove is about an inch below the soil surface. Plant within a few days of anticipated rainfall, or water the cloves after planting. Continue to water cloves/plants deeply and infrequently over extended dry periods, even over the winter if necessary.
Some sources recommend soaking garlic cloves overnight before planting and/or dipping cloves in rubbing alcohol prior to planting.
Mulch over the planting area with straw, chopped leaves, compost, or other plant waste materials to insulate the soil, reduce moisture and temperature fluctuations, and reduce weed competition.
In the spring, check the garlic patch regularly for weeds and remove them while they are small. Garlic has a shallow root system and is a poor competitor with other plants. Allowing the patch to get weedy will significantly reduce the size of the bulbs that are produced.
Fertilize in spring shortly after sprouts appear and again in May if desired.
Garlic is ready for harvest when tops turn yellow and begin to dry, generally in very late spring to midsummer in this area (depending on variety).
Garlic tastes and stores best when it has gone through a curing process. After digging, leave the garlic in a warm, shaded, ventilated location. A basket, open tray, or screen works well. Spread the garlic in a single layer on the drying surface and leave them there for a few days until the tops dry out more.
The foliage can also be braided together to create a chain of garlic and hung for drying.
Once the tops are dry, cut it back to about an inch above the top of the bulb, brush off remaining soil, and trip the roots. Store bulbs in a cool dry location where they should keep for several months.
The garlic most people are used to and that is most common in stores are classified as softneck varieties. There are also hardneck varieties that are little harder to grow and produce smaller bulbs, but which have a broader range of flavors. There is also a plant called elephant garlic, which is technically in a different family but looks like a very large garlic. Hardneck and elephant garlics should also be planted in fall for best results.
Garlic enthusiasts and experienced gardeners may wish to try a range of varieties to compare flavors, tastes and hardiness.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.