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How to grow garlic

Val Bourne / 21 December 2012 ( 17 December 2020 )

When to plant the three main types of garlic; plus, choosing the best varieties and how to care for them.

Gardener planting garlic
Growing garlic can be tricky as different types need planting at different times

Garlic is an easy crop to grow at home in the UK. Different varieties can be planted at different times of year, even in the winter months of December, January and February when there isn't much else to plant in your home vegetable plot or allotment.

When to plant garlic

Part of the problem with planting garlic is that there are three types - elephant garlic, soft-neck garlic and hard-neck garlic. Some can be planted in January/February (depending on the weather) and these are normally sold under the heading 'spring planting garlic'. Others will need planting in early October.

The ‘when to plant problem’ is complicated by the fact that certain garlics do well in certain areas, but not in others. If you find a good variety for you - stick to it.

Where to plant garlic

Garlic is found naturally in high alpine regions where snow melt provides the impetus for growth. Hot dry weather follows and this promotes summer dormancy.

Garlic grown in the garden prefers a damp, cool spring followed by a warm, sunny summer, so plant in a sunny position.

Growing garlic in pots

Garlic can also be successfully grown in a container. Choose a good sized pot with drainage holes - the larger the pot the more cloves of garlic you can plant. Choose a plastic container or a frost-proof ceramic pot, but remember that terracotta pots will need more watering.

You can plant garlic in pots similarly to planting in the ground, but you can move the pot around depending on where the sun is at different times of year. Ideally they should be getting about six to eight hours of sunlight a day.

How to plant garlic

The planting technique for garlic is the same for softnecks or hardnecks. Choose a warm sunny position and dig over well.

Break the bulb into cloves just before planting.

Place the individual cloves an inch or two below the soil roughly six inches apart.

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Garlic plant care

Hardnecks need their stems (or rocamboles) snapping off: If you fail to do this, the bulb does not swell. Softnecks do not produce a stem at all. Elephant garlic is closer to the leek than a garlic clove. If this attempts to flower, snap off the stem.

The other critical thing with all three is to lift as soon as the foliage flags or starts to wither and turn yellow. Left in the ground, garlic will start to grow again and use up the energy in the bulb and then it won’t store. Don’t try to grow supermarket garlic though, invest in proper varieties.

Watering garlic

Garlic has stumpy, short roots, as do onions and shallots, so all three need lots of water in the early stages of growth between March and June. Be prepared to water early on in dry seasons to ensure a good crop.

When to harvest garlic

Your garlic should be ready when the leaves start to wilt and turn yellow. When they're ready will depend on the variety and when they were planted, with softnecks being harvested in July and August hardnecks in June. They store well, but they do need to be dried before storing.

Drying garlic

Dry the bulbs thoroughly before storing or plaiting. Garlic can be dried outdoors if it is dry, or inside a shed during wet weather. Store in open-weave boxes or hang from a beam so they have plenty of ventilation.

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Hardneck garlic (often sold as autumn-planting garlic)

Hardnecks have a stronger flavour and the bulbs are usually colourful, not a pale-white.

Hardnecks are very hardy and they should be planted in October.

Hardneck cultivars produce an edible flowering stalk or rocambole. This must be snapped off as soon as it emerges to encourage the bulb to swell.

As the days begin to lengthen the bulbs of hardneck varieties begin to swell so they are usually harvested in June, and generally keep until January.

Hardneck varieties for October planting

'Chesnok Wight' (Ukraine)
One of the most attractive garlic types - delicately grained, light-purple, marbled skins and hot, strong cloves. Best for garlic bread.

'Lautrec Wight' (Toulouse, south-west France)
White-skinned bulb containing 10-12 pink cloves with a sophisticated, subtle flavour. Best grown in the south of England.

'Aquila Wight' (Aquila, Italy)
Red, early hardneck used in chicken dishes containing olives or in cured meats and sausages.

Softneck garlic

Softnecks produce pale, scalloped bulbs that can contain up to 20 small cloves and these are cloves are the ones most often sold commercially.

Some varieties can be planted in September in warm areas: these should keep until the following December. Others are best planted in January/February (depending on weather) and these are harvested in mid-July and should keep until April.

Softnecks planted in January and February keep longer than any other - until the following April.

Softnecks tend to bulb up as the days shorten, that is after the summer solstice, so harvesting generally takes place in July or even August. Softnecks do not produce a flowering spike, possibly because they have a longer history of being cultivated.

Softnecks for autumn planting in warm areas

'Iberian Wight' (south-west Spain)
Large, flat white garlic with purple stripes. Plant deeper than most - up to 2½in - as it pushes up.

'Albigensian Wight' (south-west France)
Large white, flat-topped garlic eaten by the Cathars in the 13th century. Keeps until Feb.

'Provence Wight' (Drôme Valley, Provence)
Fat, juicy cloves perfect for adding Mediterranean flavour to vegetable and fish dishes.

Softnecks to plant in January/February

'Solent Wight' (the Auvergne, France)
The most robust garlic for eating and keeping. Large, dense white bulbs with a good flavour.

'Tuscany Wight' (Tuscany)
Large, fat cloves. Good with chicken and lentils and classic Umbrian dishes.

'Picardy Wight' (the battlefields of the Somme)
The best variety for cold, wet sites.

Elephant garlic

Closely related to the leek, with enormous bulbs that are always planted in October. It produces bulbs up to six inches wide, with a sweet flavour, so it‘s most often roasted whole in the oven.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.