It seems that people either love or hate garlic, with not many in-betweens. For those who love it and want to grow their own, note that planting time will soon draw to a close. But it’s not too late yet, so read on.

Optimum time for planting garlic in Midcoast Maine ranges from the second through the fourth week of October, depending upon the time of onset of cold weather. This year, because of lingering warm weather, garlic planting time comes this week.

Garlic choices

Sources of garlic for planting range from local greenhouses and nurseries, to mail-order houses. For those who haven’t yet gotten their seed garlic, it’s too late for mail order. But many local outlets still have garlic on hand, a good thing for procrastinators.

The kind of garlic we buy from commercial sources is called “hard-neck” garlic. This is as opposed to the “soft-neck” garlic sold in supermarkets. Don’t plant soft-neck garlic, since it is bred specifically for commercial growers and produces uniformly small cloves. Hard-neck garlic has a better taste, produces larger cloves and comes in a variety of types, each producing a slightly different flavor.

Note that hard-neck garlic is also known as “topset” garlic because it produces a tall stalk with a swollen end called a “scape.” Scapes should be picked as they appear so that the energy goes into the bulb. Besides, scapes make a tasty addition to salads and stir fry. And scapes lend themselves to fermenting (preserving in brine). Soft-neck garlic does not produce top growth.

When buying (or selecting from your own home-grown garlic from the year before) garlic for planting, choose the largest bulbs possible. Break the bulbs apart and separate the individual cloves, using the largest ones for planting. These, in turn, will produce the largest possible bulbs next year.

Some may wonder why we plant garlic in fall rather than spring. The reason is that garlic needs an extended exposure to cold in order to perform properly. Choosing planting time is extremely important, since we want the cloves to be in the ground just long enough for roots to form before the ground freezes. We don’t want top growth to form now, though, so timing is critical.

Spring-planted garlic doesn’t usually produce large enough cloves. And by the way, the “bulb” is the intact clump and each bulb is made up of numbers of individual “cloves.”

Planting specifics

To begin, after breaking the separate cloves from the bulb, remember that garlic prefers rich ground, so choose a well-fertilized site with nice, loose soil. Then plant the cloves 1-3 inches deep and 4-6 inches apart. Make rows about 12-inches apart. Some people make a planting stick 12-inches long, with 4 and 6-inch increments marked on it. Lay this on top of the soil and use it as an indication of where to plant.

Plant your cloves with the wide, or root-end down, or stated alternately, with the pointed end up. Make a hole first, using your fingers if soil is loose enough or better yet, make a planting stick, a.k.a., a “dibble.” Then drop your garlic clove in the hole, push dirt back in over it and with the palm of your hand, pat the soil in order to slightly compact it.

After planting, wait for when the top layer of soil begins to freeze, then apply a thick layer of mulch to keep the cloves from heaving out of the ground during winter warm spells. Old hay works as mulch, but make sure it is old and a bit compacted, so that it doesn’t introduce weeds to your garden. Garlic does not compete well with weeds.

Straw, when available, makes a better mulch. Straw, though, is fairly expensive. Still, one bail of straw goes a long, long way and in the end, it’s not a bad value for the buck. Some people, me for instance, use fir boughs. Not everyone has access to fir trees but for those who do, they work fine.

After adding a good, thick layer of whatever type of mulch you choose, just sit back and wait for spring. When the ground thaws and garlic tops peep out of the soil, remove the mulch.

Garlic care

Next spring, when your garlic begins to grow, begin watering as soon as the soil becomes dry enough to need it. After that, water regularly, since garlic likes a somewhat moist soil…not wet, but uniformly moist.

When the scapes appear, try and harvest them regularly. They store well in a plastic bag kept in the refrigerator. And remember to pick the whole flower stem, not just the curled end with the onion-like swelling on the end. Also, you can periodically snip the ends of garlic leaves (these are separate from the scapes) and use them in place of chives in cooking and in salads.

When harvesting garlic, make sure at least three-fourths of the stems have thoroughly dried. Some people like to knot the stems in order to encourage drying and also, to send more energy down to the cloves. Then when finally harvesting, try and dig your garlic rather than pulling it, so as not to damage the necks (that part of the stem touching the bulb). We want the necks to remain undamaged, since that helps garlic to keep longer in storage.

After digging, store the garlic in a shady, dry spot. A shed or barn works well for this. Separate garlic so that the bulbs don’t touch. Allow to dry until the stems are as dry as paper and the roots have become stiff and brittle. After that, it’s okay to trim roots and stems.

For final storage inside, choose the driest place possible. A cool, damp cellar is absolutely the worst place to keep garlic, since it will rot when stored there. Garlic in my kitchen cabinet keeps well, since it is warm and dry. And when fall rolls around, the bulbs that I saved out for re-planting are still firm and viable.

Given a big enough garlic bed and plenty of tender, loving care, a home gardener should be able to keep garlic growing in perpetuity, without the need to buy more seed garlic. But most of us eventually decide to try another type of garlic and so buy new bulbs just to experience a new flavor.

Admittedly, growing garlic takes some effort, but it’s time and effort well spent. The large, flavorful garlic cloves from our home-grown garlic are magnitudes better than the soft-neck garlic from the stores.