Organic Gardening: Time to plant next year’s garlic

Brian Allnut
Special to The Detroit News

Garlic is one of the more enigmatic vegetables, forming a strange link between winter and summer. Unlike other crops, we plant it in fall and it incubates all winter under a thick layer of mulch and snow. In spring it is one of the first things to come up, growing vigorously until the July harvest.

This plant also contributes to the gardener’s sense of continuity because of the ease with which its “seed” can be saved.

When I say seed, I actually mean the cloves themselves. These are separated from the head and planted, each clove forming a head by the following summer.

Most growers believe that garlic adapts rapidly to the soil it’s grown in, improving with each year. This makes it a very special crop, a symbol of the health of one’s garden and the gardener’s ever-increasing returns.

In order to get started, it’s best to find garlic from a local grower. If this is too difficult, then it is fine to order from a seed catalog, knowing that in a few years the seed-stock will have begun to adapt to local conditions. However, since you are actually planting a large amount of plant tissue and not just a seed, I would say that it’s especially important to get organic garlic.

Local growers usually plant sometime in October, although several gardeners I have talked to have been pushing the date back further as a result of warmer weather, some of them planting in November.

The cloves should be planted 4 to 6 inches apart with 12 inches between rows. The growing point faces up and the root side – which was attached the base-plate of the bulb – faces down. Bury them shallowly with only an inch or so of soil above the top of the clove.

A bulb planting dibble can be a helpful tool for completing this task. I usually add several inches of compost to feed the bulbs during the next nine months. Like other plants in the onion family, garlic has rather pitiful roots, so it needs a lot of nutrients and water on hand to make up for its poor ability to forage. Some growers use feather meal as an organic high-nitrogen fertilizer. This is perfect for garlic because it lasts for roughly as long as the plant is growing.

Mulching garlic heavily is the key to protecting it over winter. It also keeps the soil moist and helps the relatively spindly plants compete with weeds. I try to put 8 to 10 inches of straw on the garlic beds; it will compact over winter.

A single bale usually covers about 100 square feet. Mulching this much means that I almost never have to water the garlic – this last summer’s extreme dryness was an exception – and only have to weed if there is some pre-existing weed problem.

The gardener doesn’t need to do much in the spring until the scapes – the garlics’ seed heads – make their appearance. Most growers cut these off and turn them into pesto or some other delicious foodstuff. It’s believed that removing the scapes helps channel more energy into the bulb and increases their size.

By mid- or late July, about half of the leaves will have browned out and the garlic can be pulled. Make sure not to grab it too late, because once the whole plant has turned brown the wrapper that protects the head doesn’t hold up well.

Tie the garlic in bunches with the stems still attached and hang up in a well-ventilated area to cure. This helps to reduce the moisture content in the head and increases its storability over winter. After about three weeks of curing, pull down the garlic and cut off the stems an inch or so above the bulb.

Most growers save around 20 percent of their best and biggest heads for re-planting, creating the starting point for next year’s repetition of the same cycle. Really everything about this process is beautiful, and the fact that it produces a delicious and savory food, essential for many types of cooking, is a bonus.

But for this writer, the thought of tiny garlic cloves sleeping in the field on winter nights is a reward in itself.

Brian Allnut is a freelance writer and organic gardener in Metro Detroit. You can reach him at