Garlic is my absolute favorite vegetable to grow. It is easy to care for, perfect for the beginner gardener and the reward is the unmistakable flavor essential to many great dishes. If you’d like to grow your own garlic, then it’s useful to understand the different garlic growing phases to ensure you make the most of it.
Depending on where you live and the variety of garlic plant you grow, the time it takes from sowing to harvest can be anything between 5 and 10 months. That’s a long time to wait to enjoy the fruits of your labor. When you understand the different garlic stages of growth you will begin to experience the full spectrum of flavors that garlic offers.
As well as tasting delicious, garlic has so many health benefits! Cloves are full of essential vitamins and minerals that help boost your immune system. Consuming garlic regularly may also reduce blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels. Generally, garlic is great for improved heart health and may even deter a vampire or two.
Garlic Stages Of Life
Can you believe that some people won’t eat garlic because they think it makes you smell? Well, it can make you smell a bit, but some believe that this is garlic’s natural detoxification process removing unhealthy toxins through your pores. There are a few home remedies to help combat the smell. Firstly, drinking lemon juice or eating lemons will help with smelly breath, and secondly, adding lots of fresh parsley to dishes where garlic is included will reduce the overall garlic body odor.
The strength of garlic flavor varies depending on the stage of growth and the variety. Outlined below are the different garlic stages of growth and tips on how to harvest at each stage.
Every garlic bulb contains on average 6 and 15 individual cloves. Each clove acts as a single seed which will in time produces a whole bulb containing multiple cloves. Garlic cloves are not seeds in the usual sense. Garlic has been cultivated and bred for the best flavor and bulb size for 4000 years and over this time it has lost its ability to produce seeds that are viable. Some garlic varieties still produce flowers, but they tend to die off before seeds are produced.
Cloves can be sown in fall or spring depending on the variety. Fall sown varieties can remain dormant for up to 3 months before developing a shoot. All the action during this period happens in the root system, providing a strong, healthy foundation to take the garlic clove through the winter months.
Hardneck varieties require a period of cold vernalization to make the clove split into separate cloves. Nature will take care of this process for garlic planted in fall; however, spring-sown garlic may need a bit of refrigerator assistance. Spring-sown cloves will develop roots quickly after planting followed by shoots around a month later.
The variety Early Purple Wight is a fall sown softneck garlic that matures early, from late May in warmer areas and early June in more northern zones. Shoots may not appear until late winter but once they appear they are quick to develop. Cristo is a garlic variety that can be sown in fall or spring. Planting garlic in spring will produce shoots in a few weeks and plants will have a shorter growing season.
Spring Garlic (aka Green Garlic)
Spring or green garlic can be harvested when plants have developed tall lush green shoots and the young bulbs underground are not fully formed. Green garlic can be harvested and used in the same way you would use spring onions. The greens have a fresh garlic/onion flavor and can be added to salads, sandwiches, or used as a garnish. Spring garlic does not have the same storing capacity as cured mature bulbs and should be consumed fresh or stored somewhere cool for up to a week.
Garlic scapes are the modified flower stalks of hardneck garlic varieties. They are strong, often curly stems when young, with an elongated, closed, pointed bud. Left to their own devices, buds will open forming a globe-type allium flower. The formation of garlic scapes and flowers diverts energy from the bulb so it’s important to remove them if you want to grow large bulbs. Scapes are usually an indicator that the garlic head will be ready to harvest in about a month.
Garlic scapes are a delicious bonus crop from the single clove seed. They can be sauteed in butter, added to stir-fries, or blitzed to make a garlic scape pesto! Scapes are best used fresh. Alternatively, store in the refrigerator for up to a week or chop and freeze in ice cube trays to use later.
Young Bulb Stage
If you are in need of some garlic and your crop isn’t quite mature you can always harvest a bulb a few weeks early. Young bulbs won’t be quite as big as they would at the fully mature stage but you have the added benefit of being able to eat the young green leaves. These immature young bulbs have a fresh garlic flavor which can vary in strength from very strong to very mild. Young garlic heads will be covered in a moist leathery type skin which would normally form the papery outer layers of a mature garlic bulb.
Similar to spring garlic and garlic scapes, young bulbs will not store well and should be used fresh or stored somewhere cool for up to a week.
Mature Bulb Stage
The mature bulb stage is really what it’s all about for most garlic growers. Social media is flooded in early summer with pictures of bumper harvests or unfortunately for some, crop failures. With garlic plants, it’s difficult to know how successful your harvest will be until you pull the bulbs out of the ground… unless you have an early sneak peek!
Mature bulbs should have stout upright stalks with fleshy leaves and the heads should be enveloped in white, pink, and even purple papery skins. When they reach maturity in their life cycle, the leaves will slowly begin to yellow, ultimately turning brown and signaling that it’s time to harvest. Harvested bulbs can be used immediately or stored for longer use. These heads will have a strong flavor that doesn’t form in the earlier growth stages in their life cycle.
When garlic bulbs have reached maturity the scapes will have unwound pointing upwards and the buds will have burst revealing a typical allium globe of multiple tiny white flowers tinged with pink and often intermingled with small bulbils. These bulbils are immature garlic cloves that can be saved and used for growing garlic in future years. Bulbils have the added benefit of being perfectly adapted to your climate and completely disease-free.
Mature garlic bulbs produced from flowering stems will be small but it is necessary if you want to save flower seed and/or bulbils. Flowers also produce garlic seed which is small and black like onion seed. Unfortunately, garlic seeds are often not viable and will not germinate. Growing garlic from bulbils or garlic seeds requires patience as it can take 3 to 4 years to produce harvestable garlic bulbs from this method. It’s much faster to grow garlic from garlic cloves.
Harvest garlic bulbs when one-third to half of the leaves on your garlic plant have turned yellow. Bulbs left in the ground too long will open allowing soil and damp to penetrate increasing the potential to rot when storing. Take care when harvesting garlic to avoid damaging the plant’s base. Harvest the entire plant, brushing off as much soil as possible, and lay the bulbs in a single layer somewhere well ventilated, shaded, and protected from the elements. These heads will take a couple of weeks to cure. When ready the leaves, stems, and garlic head should feel completely dry. Trim back the leaves and peel off the outermost papers to remove any last traces of soil and store somewhere dark and cool until needed. Use these for their strong taste as needed.
Select a few of your largest, healthiest-looking bulbs to use as seed for next year.
Garlic Tips And Tricks
One of the most important elements of growing garlic is getting the soil, location, and spacing right. Plant garlic in fertile, moisture-retentive, free-draining soil in a bright sunny spot. Garlic plants do not cope well with competing weeds so regularly hoe and space plants at least 8 inches (20cm) apart to ensure bulbs do not compete with each other.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How long does garlic take to grow?
A: Fall sown garlic can take 9 to 10 months to fully mature. Late winter/early spring sown cloves will be ready for harvest in 5 to 6 months.
Q: How do you know when garlic is ready to harvest?
A: Signs that your bulbs are ready to harvest are 3 to 4 weeks after garlic scapes have formed, when stems are flowering, and/or when one-third to half the leaves have turned yellow.