Garlic is the harvest that marks the end of the gardening season for me. It’s the last crop I plant in the fall, and while I still have cool season vegetables growing through the winter, planting garlic caps leaves the year and allows me to plan for the next season.
I recommend that every gardener grows garlic – especially beginners. It’s the easiest crop I’ve grown in my garden and it gives beginners such a satisfying feeling of succeeding in their first year.
Garlic is not without its problems, but most of them are easy to prevent or remedy. We talk in detail about what can go wrong with garlic in our latest podcast. You can listen below or read on.
Common problems in growing garlic in the garden
Do not plant in autumn
Many people wait and plant their garlic in the spring. While you can get a harvest with garlic planted in the spring, it’s important to lower your expectations for that harvest. Most likely, you will pick very small bulbs.
Why is planting garlic in the fall a best practice? Garlic needs a cool period, also called vernalization, before it sprouts. Hard-necked garlic, specifically, will be much more difficult to grow in the spring without this cold period. For those of us who experience true winters, planting in the fall allows garlic to grow as it was intended – with winter providing the natural chill.
Even if you grow soft-necked garlic in the spring, chances are you’ll still end up with smaller bulbs. So, plan to plant your garlic in the fall. If you’re reading this in the spring, you can plant now (with modest expectations), but get ready to plant again in the fall.
Ordering Seed Garlic Too Late
Many new garlic growers, understanding that fall is the ideal planting time, tend to wait until August or September to order their seed garlic. I can say from experience that some of my favorite seed suppliers were already out of stock when I was looking for autumn garlic this past August!
Don’t worry about ordering too soon. Most of the time, garlic will be shipped to you from these suppliers when it is best for your climate. So you can order early and long before the season to ensure you get your order, and then you can sit back and not worry about eating your garlic too early.
IF you order garlic early and receive the shipment well before the planting date, no problem. Just open the box (for ventilation) and keep the garlic in a cool place. An indoor room, away from sunlight, is perfect.
Buying the Wrong Seed Garlic
It is imperative that you buy certified, disease-free seed garlic. Organic garlic alone will not be enough. Because? If you buy garlic at the supermarket with the intention of planting these cloves, you run the risk of bringing disease to the soil in your garden. This disease can contaminate your soil for up to 15 years. Not only will you not be able to grow garlic on it, you will also not be able to grow other alliums (like onions).
If you don’t have any other options (i.e. seed suppliers are sold out), and you take your chances and buy this garlic from the grocery store, I recommend you plant it in containers. That way, if you bring in diseases, you won’t lose an entire section of your garden.
One more thing – if you plant supermarket garlic, you are planting soft neck garlic. Softneck garlic grows best in mild winter climates, so if you live in an area with long, cold winters (where the ground freezes), softneck garlic will not work as well for you.
Need a step by step plan on growing garlic? Access my deep dive into all things garlic growing for $15 here.
planting small carnations
No matter where you order your seed garlic from, you are likely to receive larger bulbs. Some of the teeth in these bulbs will be large, but some will be small. You can definitely plant the smaller teeth, but know that the smaller teeth will likely result in a smaller crop.
I recommend planting your big teeth and using the smaller ones in your kitchen.
Not enriching the soil before planting
We plant our garlic in late autumn. Most of us are tired of the end of a long summer season. We just want to put our last crop in the ground and call it a season! However, we must not skip the important step of enriching our soil.
Can you still grow garlic without enriching the soil? Absolutely. I did this my first season and was thrilled with my garlic harvest. However, when I look back at these photos and remember that harvest, I realize how incredibly small my garlic plants were. Looking back, I see now that the ground was definitely missing.
As I discuss in detail in my Garlic Workshop, garlic loves organic matter and needs a healthy dose of nitrogen. Most of this can be done before planting using organic inputs.
Make sure your Ph is aligned
Garlic likes a PH level around 6.5. Anything between 6 to 7 is ideal. If you are concerned about the PH level being too high or too low, I recommend a soil test and specifically the Soil Kit (reference link).
It’s the easiest way to test your soil. They send a kit to my mailbox with full instructions on how to collect a soil sample. I then return the sample (in a prepaid envelope) and within a few days I receive an email report that tells me exactly how I should correct the soil – dosing instructions included!
planting too close
For many years, I planted my garlic 4 inches apart. But when I started researching garlic more and watching a fantastic gardener friend of mine grow exceptional garlic 6 inches away, I wondered if that little extra space would make a difference.
I started planting my garlic six inches apart at the same time I started to enrich my soil, but I still believe the spacing changes have made a huge difference. Garlic bulbs grow much larger when they have room to grow.
Not considering next year’s garden layout
Garlic takes up space in the garden from autumn to summer. Depending on your climate and the type of garlic you grow, this could be from May to August.
That’s a long time to have a raised bed or part of your garden tied up. So be sure and consider what other crops you want to grow next year when choosing where you want to plant and how much garlic you want to grow.
Unless your area remains covered in snow over the winter, you will notice that weeds will start to grow in late winter at about the same time the garlic starts to grow. Garlic needs to be able to grow without this weed competition, especially early on in its growth.
Lots of competition = smaller bulbs at harvest.
To mitigate this problem, I either mulch at the time of planting, or when weeds start to grow I do a thorough weeding and then add a 2″ layer of mulch. This will prevent weeds from taking hold and harming the final crop.
there is not enough water
When garlic is starting to grow and leaves are starting to form, it’s vital that you put an inch of water each week on your plants. In my southeastern US climate, this is not an issue. We get a lot of winter rains, but if you don’t, add supplemental irrigation to ensure you get an inch of water a week.
Harvest too early or too late
While some crops are more picky about when to harvest (like corn), not harvesting garlic at the perfect time will not ruin your harvest. But, there is an ideal time that will give you the biggest bulbs with the longest storage life.
If you harvest garlic too early, you won’t get bulbs as big as you could because they haven’t finished developing their bulbs.
If you harvest too late, they cannot be stored for as long as they could have been.
How do you know when to pick garlic?
When the lower half of the leaves start to turn brown, it’s safe to say that bulb development has stopped. This is the perfect time to harvest. Each of these leaves represents a layer of wrapping around the garlic, so if you wait until they’re all brown, you risk decomposing that critical wrapping. This can lead to moisture getting into the garlic, which can cause it to rot and shorten its shelf life.
Not curing the garlic
After digging up our garlic crop, it’s okay to eat it that day or toss it in the fridge and eat it next week. But curing garlic for storage is how we make sure we eat garlic for months.
When determining whether the curing process is complete, it is vital to ensure the garlic is completely dry. Depending on your zone and climate (humidity = longer to cure), garlic can take over a month to fully cure.
Not planting according to your climate
Since garlic needs this cool period to grow, it is imperative that you take extra steps for a successful harvest if you live in a frost-free climate. I recommend finding other gardeners in your area who grow garlic and finding out what tips and tricks they use to have a fruitful harvest.
For example, our friend Kevin from Epic Gardening has a whole series on YouTube about his garlic harvest in the San Diego area.
On the other hand, if you grow garlic in an extremely cold climate, you have other considerations. Most cool-weather growers need to make dense mulch after planting in the fall – some even six inches or more! So they might have to gather that mulch when spring comes.
The good thing is that with garlic you are almost guaranteed to have some sort of harvest, and we all learn what works and what doesn’t in our specific climates as we test and grow each year.
If you are interested in learning more about how to grow garlic, visit our Garlic Workshop. Finally, tag us on Instagram with these garlic shots! We’d love to see your photos!
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