Nothing adds flavour to food quite like garlic does, with its powerful and earthy taste. Whether you add it to a roast, or chop it up for a quick stir fry, or mince it into a marinade – garlic is the ultimate vegetable at enhancing a meal. (Yes, it’s a vegetable!) When it comes to growing your own veggie patch at home, garlic is a must-have. No need to run out to the shops for a bulb or two – just pluck it from your own backyard!
So how to grow garlic? It’s actually fairly straightforward, although it does take a lot of patience. Still, growing garlic is a rewarding process, and it’s worth harvesting those bulbs in the end. So go get your hands on some garlic cloves and get planting!
Types of Garlic
The scientific name for garlic is ‘allium sativum’ – the same family as onions, chives, and leeks. There are several garlic varieties for you to plant, depending on your taste – slightly sweet, or stronger flavour, or easy-peeling. There are two main types of garlic, determined by their stalks.
This is the more common type, which you often see stocked in supermarkets and produce stores. Most softneck garlic varieties are white, with thin skin and longer shelf lives. These benefit more from warm, temperate climates. Some options include:
1. Italian Red
This is actually an Australian cultivar that thrives in most regions, but does not tolerate extreme cold or wet climates. These taste a little sweet, with a pleasant aroma. Italian red produces small cloves with maroonish skin.
2. Australian White
This type of garlic has white skin, sometimes with purple marks, and medium-sized cloves. These thrive best in temperate climates where winters are cold but springs are warm.
Silverskin garlic has a strong flavour – spicy, with a sweet note – that intensifies when cooked. It stores very well, sometimes over a year in good conditions. Its small, teardrop-shaped bulbs have flaky white skin. Silverskin grows best in low humidity, and prefers warm summers.
Hardneck garlic varieties have firmer stalks, and often form flower stalks or ‘scapes’ that need pruning while the bulbs grow. Save the scapes, though – they make a great treat whether raw or stir-fried. Hardneck varieties tolerate cold better, so choose these if your winters tend to be harsh.
The Rocambole variety has a powerful flavour that makes a great addition to any menu. It produces silver-white bulbs that contain several cloves with distinct crimson skin that peels easily. It can thrive in many different climates, but will only keep up to six months in storage.
2. Purple Garlic
These are easily identified by the vivid purple colouring on their outer layers. These are easy and straightforward to grow, especially for beginners to garlic plants. They produce large cloves with milder flavours.
This may only produce several cloves under white layers of skin, but porcelain garlic packs some intense flavour. This garlic bulb is particularly good for sautéing, since its spiciness lends a rich taste to any food it’s cooked with. May keep up to 8 months.
When and Where to Plant Garlic
It’s best to plant garlic in early April, but anytime during the autumn season will do – and with patience and effort, you’ll have a crop in the summer. If you live in cooler climates, plant garlic in early spring.
Garlic thrives best in spots with plenty of sunlight. Layer the ground with organic matter (like mulch or compost) a few weeks before planting, and ensure that the ground drains well – accumulated water will make the bulbs and roots rot. You can plant them in garden beds alongside other plants, or in pots indoors if you need to save space.
So how to go about actually growing garlic? Depending on how much garden space you have – or if you have a garden at all – you can choose to plant garlic outdoors or indoors. And don’t plant store-bought or imported garlic; instead, choose bulbs from local nurseries or produce stores that have more varieties, and can advise you on the best one for garlic growing.
How to grow garlic outdoors
Choose a spot in your garden with plenty of sun (or if you live in warmer climates, partial shade). Separate the garlic bulb into individual cloves for planting. You can dig separate holes for each clove, or lay them out in a trench. Plant the cloves pointy end up into the soil, about 3cm deep (or just below the surface), and cover lightly with mulch or compost. Individual cloves should be 10-15cm apart to give them enough room.
It’s important to keep soil moist before you plant the cloves, since it’s better not to water garlic bulbs while they’re germinating. The soil needs to be well-drained, since too much water will make a bulb rot before it can develop. After germination starts, water only enough to keep soil moist. Layering organic mulch (like grass clippings) or compost will help retain moisture and allow you to water less often – garlic is very low-maintenance!
If your soil needs it, you can sprinkle some high-nitrogen fertiliser to give your plants a boost. Otherwise, garlic doesn’t need help to grow.
In terms of pests, garlic has few. It can occasionally suffer aphid attacks, or maggots can get at the roots. Slugs and snails may also eat away at stems and flowers. Regular weeding and a light layer of mulch helps deter pests while growing garlic.
How to grow garlic indoors
If you don’t have a garden, or just want to keep your garlic plants inside, planting garlic indoors is straightforward. Choose well-draining pots at least 30cm in diameter to give your plants adequate room to grow. Keep the pots somewhere sunny, such as near a window, especially during the winter season.
The planting process is similar to growing garlic outdoors. Take each individual clove and plant them pointy end up in holes 2-4cm deep, 10-20cm apart. Keep soil moist but not wet, and make sure the pot drains so the plants don’t rot. You can also use this method to establish your garlic bulbs during winter. Wait until the green leaves start showing in spring, then transfer them into a garden bed.
Harvesting and Storing Garlic
Garlic is ready to harvest when the leaves start to wilt and turn yellow. Use a trowel or similar equipment to ease each bulb out of the soil, while pulling on the top of the stem (lightly!) to help. Dust off soil lightly, and be careful not to flake off too much skin. Pile them somewhere shaded and airy to dry out.
Once this is done, cut off the leaves and scapes (you can save these to cook!) and store them somewhere cool and dry. Try hanging them off a rack, whether strung up or in a mesh bag, so they get plenty of air. Under the right conditions, you’ll have plenty to keep you going for the coming months – and some extra to replant in early April!
Wherever you put your garlic, though, make sure it’s well out of any pet’s reach – garlic is toxic for cats and dogs.
This plant resembles garlic and even tastes like it, but despite the name, elephant garlic isn’t an actual garlic variety. They come from the same genus, but are different species. In the same way leeks are milder onions, elephant garlic is a milder form of its pungent vegetable cousin. This works well for people who have difficulty tolerating regular garlic’s strong taste.
These plants grow best in subtropical climates, and are best planted in spring or autumn. Sow the individual cloves about 5cm below the surface and 30cm apart. Place them somewhere in your garden with plenty of sun to get larger bulbs, and make sure the soil drains well. If you plant these in autumn, you’ll likely have a harvest in about 8 months – right around summer. Spring-planted elephant garlic sprouts in about 90 days, but you’ll only have a small crop.
Elephant garlic is ready for harvest when the leaves are starting to wilt. After picking them, let the bulbs dry for a few days somewhere cool and shaded. Do not wash before storing. Under good conditions, your crop can keep for up to 10 months.
Garlic Companion Plants
Garlic as food might deter some companions, but garlic as a plant helps other vegetables thrive. It’s actually a good idea to plant bulbs in your garden veggie patch since garlic helps keep pests at bay and can even improve soil quality.
Some good companion plants while planting garlic include:
Do not, however, plant garlic near peas and other legumes. It will inhibit their growth.
For the uses of garlic, the biggest one is always for cooking! Break off cloves or use the bulb whole in whatever meal you’re trying to make. You can also make a garlic spray for use on your other garden plants – it’s great for keeping away aphids and other pests.
After harvesting your garlic, plant other vegetables in its place to ‘re-fertilise’ the soil and replace the nutrients. Crop rotation ensures your soil isn’t stripped of its nutrients after planting. Try alternating them with tomatoes, or growing them among rose bushes.
It’s important to maintain your garden’s condition so that your plants – edible or not – are in the best health. But beyond that, the methods for how to grow garlic are simple. So grab a handful of bulbs and get planting – your tastebuds will say thanks later!