Garlic is one of the easiest veggies to grow, but sometimes those big green tops yield a harvest of disappointingly small heads. After nearly a year of patiently watering, weeding and fertilizing, we want large flavorful garlic for our favorite recipes! Here’s 9 steps to take, from pre-planting preparation through harvest, to help you grow your biggest garlic heads yet.
In addition to following all of the steps outlined below, it is important to plant your garlic at the right time. Plant garlic in the Fall (September and October are the best months to plant), it should be at least 2 weeks before your first frost of the season. This affords your garlic the best possible chances to withstand Winter conditions by giving it ample time to establish. November is late to plant Garlic, December is marginal.
1. Select the best variety for your region
Not all garlic grows equally well everywhere. Most garlic requires sufficient cold temperatures in winter to develop good heads in spring, but some varieties are more tolerant of warm weather. Hardneck garlic needs exposure to 40 to 50°F for 6 to 12 weeks for the biggest heads. If you live in an area with warm winters, avoid garlic described as “great for cold areas;” softnecks such as California Early White and California Late White are a good choice for warm climates. Growing varieties that are not adapted to your climate can result in smaller heads.
2. Prepare the soil for planting
Garlic tolerates a wide variety of soils, but for large heads it is important to prepare your garden with the optimum nutrients and conditions before planting. Garlic prefers loose, loamy soil with high organic matter content and good drainage. Boggy or heavy wet soils can cause cloves to rot or develop poorly. If your garden soil is not suitable for garlic, consider growing it in a raised bed for better drainage.
If you fertilize your garden, only do so between pre-planting time and late spring when scapes begin to form. Otherwise you could encourage too much top growth instead of head development. Be careful also of over-fertilizing in the fall, which could lead to frost damage in early growth.
3. Plant the biggest cloves
The biggest heads grow from the biggest cloves. Large cloves have more energy stored up to help get your garlic off to a good start, and are more resistant to frost damage. When separating cloves for planting, select the largest cloves for growing garlic heads, and use the smaller ones for growing spring green garlic (just harvest in spring when the leaves have grown, and use like garlic chives).
If you saved some of your harvested garlic for planting, select the larger of your heads for seed garlic and eat the smaller heads. While the larger ones are more appetizing, by selecting larger heads for planting this year, you’ll have more big heads for both planting and eating in future years.
4. Give them room to grow
Plant your garlic with plenty of room for their roots to grow, and to keep the garlic from competing with each other for nutrients and water. Spacing them at 6 inches when planting is best. This also is close enough for them to provide some shade to each other while growing, which also helps with the next step:
5. Keep growing garlic cool
The biggest garlic experiences a long cool winter and early spring when it establishes its root system and prepares for head development, followed by a long (but not too hot) spring and early summer growth period when the heads grow and divide. Head growth starts when the soil temperature is around 60° F, and ends when the soil reaches 90° F.
The key to this step is to keep your garlic’s soil cool for as long as possible until it is ready for harvest. This will give it the longest time possible to develop large heads. If your soil gets too hot too early, head growth will stop when they are still small.
Select a planting site that is shaded during the hottest part of the day. Mulch deeply with light colored material such as straw to help reflect light, insulate the soil from heat, and retain moisture – all of which keep the soil temperature lower. In areas where the ground freezes, mulching also protects the garlic from getting too cold. Compost, Cocoa Mulch, or Mega Mulch are also good mulch options. You can also shade your garlic patch with shade fabric.
6. Plenty of water
A good irrigation plan will also help to increase head size. Mulching helps to reduce evaporation, so your soil stays moist longer and less water needs to be applied. Water your garlic deeply but infrequently (allow the surface to dry out between watering, but keep it moist several inches down). This will encourage the roots to grow deeper to find water, instead of staying in the upper regions of the soil where the temperature is higher.
7. Weed your garden
Weeds growing among your garlic provide unnecessary competition for nutrients and water. Weed your garden regularly! Mulching can also help to reduce the amount of weeds that sprout up.
8. Remove scapes right away
Scapes are the flower stalks that garlic produces in the spring and early summer. Check your growing garlic frequently for these, and remove them at leaf level. They’re good to eat, so don’t throw them out! They should not be allowed to grow because this takes energy away from head growth.
9. Harvest at the right time
Make sure that your garlic is fully grown before harvesting. Your garlic will not grow any more and is considered mature when the tops are a third to half brown or when it falls over. When your garlic tops begin to yellow, stop watering them. Harvest 2 weeks later and cure them. Don’t wait too long, or the papery covering will start to break down and they won’t store as well. Your garlic will not all be ready at the same time, so harvest each head as needed.