Garlic is a member of the large lily family, which includes onions, garlic and leeks. Garlic differs from onion as it produces many smaller bulbs or cloves as opposed to the uniform bulb produced by onions. Garlic also has flat leaves while onion plants produce round, hollow leaves like the common wild onion and wild garlic lawn weeds that we see in the winter. The best time to add garlic to a garden in Central Alabama is from October to November — so now is the time to get your site ready.
Like most other veggies, garlic grows best in a well-drained soil amended with organic matter. Make sure the site gets plenty of sun, preferably over 6 hours of uninterrupted sunlight every day. Since garlic takes 3 to 4 months to mature, plant it in an area where it won’t be disturbed. Garlic can get a little out of hand over time so giving it its own bed or border in the veggie or perennial garden is a good idea.
Ordinary garlic grown in Alabama is of the soft-necked variety (Allium sativum). Unlike hard-neck, soft-neck garlic does not bolt or flower while it’s bulbing. It also stores well. Hard-neck types have a shorter storage life. However, the hard-neck variety does peel easier than the soft-neck. Commercial varieties found in grocery stores are typically soft-neck garlic. Elephant garlic is a different species (Allium ampeloprasum) more closely related to a leek. It has a much milder flavor, so mild it can even be eaten raw. In addition to garlic’s culinary and medicinal uses, garlic adds color to your landscape with its dark green foliage and ball-shaped flowers.
The best place to get garlic for planting is from other gardeners who save their bulbs. It would be the best adapted for the area. While it is possible to use garlic purchased from the grocery store for planting, the garlic may have been sprayed with a retardant to inhibit sprouting.
After your area is ready for planting, go ahead and divide the garlic cloves apart. Plant each clove as a set (like onion sets) 4 to 6 inches apart. Plant elephant garlic at least 12 inches apart. Push cloves about 1 inch into well-prepared soil. Make sure you have the correct end of the clove pointing up. The top is the more pointed end. A slow release fertilizer will provide steady nutrition until mid- to late winter when garlic will need more nutrients.
Once the garlic has a few leaves growing, it will not hurt to snip the leaves every once in awhile to chop and use in the kitchen (unless, of course, you are also growing garlic chives). Fall plantings usually mature in late May or early June. If you plant late, harvest will be later.
Harvest garlic when leaves begin to turn yellow and fall over. Take up plants and lay in a warm, shady, dry area for several days. One suggestion is to hang individual bulbs by a string or in mesh bags in a warm, dry place like a barn. Do not wash bulbs before curing or bang them together to remove soil. Garlic keeps well in a dry, well-ventilated area for many months. Braided garlic should be hung in the same type of environment to prevent the bulbs or cloves from rotting. The health benefits of garlic are numerous. But the truth is, even if it was unhealthy, I do not think I could cook without it.
For help on other home and garden questions, contact your local county Extention office or visit online at www.aces.edu.