Ask A Master Gardener – Growing Glorious Garlic

Authored by: Carol Shirk

“Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good.”
― Alice May Brock.

I am a firm believer in this quote and use copious amounts of garlic in the kitchen.  My children have gone so far as to accuse me of including it in chocolate cake.  I invoke my Fifth Amendment privilege, and refuse to answer the question.

Garlic (Allium sativum) is a close relative to chives and onions.  California is the garlic capitol of the United States, but Wisconsin home gardeners can easily grow their own and will find that it is a superior product of anything purchased.  However, garlic requires a cold period to produce a large clove, and therefore must be planted it in the fall. Although garlic is a perennial, in our southern Wisconsin climate it is grown as an annual.

The first question to ponder is what type of garlic to plant.  Garlic is divided into two broad categories: hard neck and soft neck. Each has its own characteristics and advantages.  Within each category are many varieties.  Hard neck is favored by gourmet chefs, has a hard flower stalk, known as a scape, which is edible. It produces 4–12 easily peeled cloves. It stores safely for 4–8 months, although that time can be extended by keeping the storage temperature at 32˚F.

Soft necked garlic has more cloves (10–40), but no flower stalk, so can be braided.  They tend to be less flavorful and do not peel easily. This type does better in a milder climate with shorter winters.  They have a longer storage time (6–9 months) and is the type you are more likely to find it the grocery store.

Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) is another option, but is actually not a garlic.  Instead, it is a leek with a mild garlic flavor.  As the name implies, it is large, with only 5–6 cloves and can be bitter in colder climates.

Garlic needs to be grown in full sun with well-drained soil high in organic matter.  Loosen the growing bed before planting and add compost.  Adding another nitrogen source (alfalfa meal, soybean meal, fish meal) to these heavy feeders will help root development.  Obtain the garlic cloves from a reputable nursery and not from the grocery store.

Plant the garlic within a week or two after the first killing frost.  This will enable the roots to establish and shoots to emerge, but not break the soil before a hard freeze. This chilling time is necessary for bulbing to take place and garlic to grow robustly.

Separate the cloves just before planting, keeping the individual wrapper in place.  Plant the cloves 2–3 inches deep, pointed side up; 6 inches apart, in rows 12–18 inches apart. Mulch with 3–4 inches of clean organic material to minimize soil temperature fluctuations.

Once the growing season starts, pull back the mulch until the shoots are about 6 inches tall.  Then, replace it to help with weed suppression.  When the shoots are 4–6 inches tall, add nitrogen fertilizer again.  Provide an inch of water per week.

Harvest, using a garden fork, when about half of the leaves have turned died, around June or July.  Dig a few test plants to make sure the bulbs have filled the skins.  Allow them to cure as a whole bulb and dry for 3–4 weeks in a well-ventilated room before storing.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener


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