The DTE Notebook for the Urban Organic Vegetable, Herb and Flower Gardener.

Garlic – The quick and easy version of garlic planting

Article & Photos by Rob Danforth

(Photo:  Garlic, Fronted by Calendula)

Planting guidelines:

  • October, or early November.
  • 3 inches/ 7.62 cm deep and 6 inches/ 15.24 cm apart (5“apart is OK)
  • In-ground (best for bulb protection) or in box beds with protective mulch (leaves, straw, grass clippings, and/or the “cut-and-dropped” soft parts of finished plants to cover the soil surface).
  • Planting in portable containers works but is not recommended. If you try it, protect the pot from the ravages of winter with mulch around and over.  Shallow pots/beds and elevated beds are not a good idea.

Note: all above-ground containers are one growing zone colder (e.g., 4b instead of Ottawa’s 5a) than in-ground plots or raised beds, and elevated beds give winter weather even more access for biting cold under, around, and over.  Winter deep freeze can be devastating to plants as well as portable and elevated containers alike.  However, portable pots can be sunk into the soil and covered with mulch to overwinter, and if your space has a warm microclimate, this could help sheltered elevated beds planted with garlic – but it may be a gamble, so you might not want to bet your whole crop on only one type of situation.

The step-by-step version: 

1 – Gather supplies:

  • Purchase garlic bulbs or use some you saved from last year’s crop.
  • Stock enough compost or composted farm animal manure to cover the area you intend to plant with a layer 4 cm deep. Garlic needs a rich, well-drained soil.
  • Collect enough mulch to cover the same area (leaves, straw, grass clippings, the “cut-and-dropped” soft parts of finished plants to cover the soil surface). Do not use bark, wood chips, or shredded pallets.
  • Get a dibber (e.g., wooden broom handle cut to hand tool size or left as a pole for a stand-up version for plots and marked at the three-inch level with indelible marker or an elastic band). We use an old shovel handle minus the shovel and marked in inches from 1 to 6 (the 6-inch mark is for leeks) – great stand-up dibber that saves crawling about. The shaft is about the diameter of a looney, and the “D” handle allows for punching and twisting to pull the dibber free from the moist soil – it leaves a nice neat hole.

(Photo: our stand-up dibber for field work – marked 3 inches for garlic and 6 inches for leeks)

2 – Prepare the Garlic

  • Take the garlic bulbs (hard neck preferred for colder climates) and separate the bulbs into their component bulbils. Note:  Hard neck is hardier, has larger bulbils, and is stronger tasting, but it has fewer bulbils per bulb and a shorter shelf life than soft neck garlic (white garlic often sold in sleeves in grocery stores).  Soft neck garlic grows best in warmer climates, has more but smaller bulbils, and a longer shelf life. 
  • Count the bulbils to determine the number of holes and the size of plot you will need.

3 – Method

  • Add the 4 cm of compost or composted farm animal manure. Do not rake under; disturb the soil as little as possible.
  • Add moisture to the soil if it is dry. Moist soil is more friable and the bulbils need the moisture to get established.
  • Take a length of cord and 2 sticks to make a straight line, or lay the broom handle on the soil surface to make a small depression as a guide.
  • Punch the holes into the soil with the dibber along the cord line or the depression, 3 inches/ 7.62 cm deep and roughly 6 inches/ 15.24 cm apart.
  • Move the cord/broom handle and start another row, 6 inches/15.24 cm away from the first row – you can also stagger the garlic in the second row so the garlic is visible between the garlic in the first row.
  • Drop in a bulbil with pointed end up (rough, root end down).
  • Backfill all the holes and firm the soil – do not hard pack!

4 – Protection

  • Cover with a layer of mulch to save moisture, but not too deep or you may attract voles.
  • If necessary, pin down a sheet of chicken wire or bird netting over the area to hold the mulch in place and to prevent squirrel gardening and cat toileting. Remove this in spring.
  • In late summer, the garlic will form “scapes” (a smooth, solid stem with a seed head on the end). Whenever the scape curls back on itself, cut it off near the main stock, and use the scapes in the kitchen (e.g., stir fry?).

(Photo: Garlic scape curling back on itself)

5 – Harvest

When the leaves wither, harvest the garlic.  Leave roots, soil, and 3 inches of stem on the bulb until the bulbs are cured – 3 weeks in a dry area.  Then brush dirt, trim the roots and shorten the stem to an inch. 

Store indoors.

garlic(Photo: Harvested garlic ready for 3 weeks of drying)

Note:  if the newly planted garlic starts to grow before the snow covers it, this is OK!  No worries. It will still be fine in the spring.

Note:  occasionally, you may get “Stem Garlic”.  Instead of forming a “garlic scape” the seed head will form in the stalk about 4 inches above the ground – the stalk will look like a snake that has swallowed a turtle.  This is still usable, but the bulbils will be very small and irritating to work with in the kitchen.

 (Photo: Stem Garlic)


Tip:  if you like garlic and would like it all throughout the growing season, try garlic chives.  Garlic chives do not form garlic bulbs, but the plant is a hardy perennial and will re-grow year after year.  You can cut the flat, blade-like leaves and use garlic chives all through the growing season instead of waiting for a garlic bulb harvest in late August.  (Photo:  Garlic chives in full bloom) Pollinators love the flowers!

Happy Gardening