How (or where) does your garlic grow?

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD - Extension Educator/Food Safety
Featured Article - posted Wed., Oct. 24, 2012
- Contributed Photo

Garlic is a staple in the home kitchen. Garlic powder, garlic paste, marinated garlic, frozen garlic and - the best - fresh from the garden garlic give us lots of options for kicking up the flavor of our favorite dishes. But, did you know…

-China now produces 75 percent of the world’s supply of garlic.
-April 19 is National Garlic Day.
-Garlic is probably native to central Asia but has long been naturalized in southern Europe.
-Garlic has been associated with lots of health benefits, including improved heart health, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.
-Most of the garlic (90 percent) grown in the U.S. comes from California.
-Garlic (Allium Sativum) is a member of the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae), which also includes leeks, onions and shallots.
-Garlic is derived from the old English term “garleac,” which means “spear leek.”
-It is a perennial.
-It grows as an underground bulb (head) composed of pungent bulblets, commonly called cloves.
-Chicago got it's name from the Algonquin Indian word for the wild garlic and onion that grew around Lake Michigan – “chicagaoua.”
-Garlic is truly a worldly vegetable, with references to it appearing in the history and lore of Egypt, Korea, China, Greece, India and, of course, the countries where vampires are legend.

While you can easily find garlic at local farmers’ markets at this time of year (and often at the winter markets), garlic is easily grown in your own back yard. You might want to consider growing it - the flavor of locally-grown garlic far surpasses what is sold in your supermarket.

So how do you grow your own?

You should plant garlic in October. Don’t bother to try and plant garlic that you have gotten from the store - buy garlic for planting from a local garden center so that you know it is adapted to this growing area. Check with local garlic growers for their source.

Garlic grows best on friable (crumbly), loamy soils that are fertile and high in organic matter. Gardeners who can grow onions can grow garlic since the culture is similar. Follow soil test recommendations for your particular garden soil. The soil must be kept evenly moist, as dry soil will cause irregularly-shaped bulbs. Heavy clay soils will also create misshaped bulbs and make harvesting difficult. Add organic matter, such as well-rotted manure or compost to the soil on a yearly basis to keep it friable.

Plant garlic cloves 3 to 5 inches apart in an upright position in the row and set them at a depth of one-half to 1 inch deep. Setting the bulbs in an upright position ensures a straight neck. Be sure to allow 18 to 30 inches between the rows. Do not divide the bulbs into cloves until you are ready to plant ,since early separation results in decreased yields. Use the largest cloves in the bulb and avoid any that may be moldy.

The bulbs may be harvested when the tops start to dry. This is usually in August. Bulbs should be dug up, rather than pulled, to avoid stem injury. Allow the tops to dry. After the bulbs have dried, the tops and roots can be removed with shears to within an inch of the bulbs.

It is essential that the garlic be well-cured before going into storage. The mature bulbs are best stored at 32 degrees F. Garlic stores well under a wide range of temperatures, but sprouts are produced most quickly at temperatures at or above 40 degrees F. The humidity in storage should be near 65 to 70 percent at all times to discourage mold development and root formation. Cloves should keep for six to seven months.

Hopefully everyone knows about the risk of botulism from garlic stored in oil. Since garlic grows in the soil where Clostridium botulinum (the bacterium that causes botulism poisoning) can live, there is always the chance that some of the bacteria could be there. These bacteria like to survive and grow in low-acid, air-free environments. If you place raw garlic cloves in a jar of oil, you are creating the perfect environment for the bacteria to grow and produce its deadly toxin - particularly if left at room temperature. Commercial garlic in oil products contain a preservative that creates a more acid solution, which keeps the bacteria from producing the toxin.

I will often get a call from home canners with panic in their voices - “the garlic in my pickles turned blue!!” When garlic is used in canning pickles, a blue-purple pigment often develops under acidic conditions. This situation is often seen in canned products when the garlic is immature or over-dried. But, rest assured, this change in color does not mean the batch of home-processed pickles is deadly. The color change does not affect the taste or edibility of the product.

For more information on home gardening topics, growing garlic and home food preservation, contact the University of Connecticut Home and Garden Education Center at or 1-877-486-6271.

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