October 1, 2012

October perfect time to plant garlic

AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — Garlic is an easy crop to grow at home, and October is the month to plant it. 

Not only do I love to eat garlic, it’s also fun to grow. If you don’t have much room, try planting just one head this fall and see for yourself. Garlic needs a cold spell to size up, so you plant it in the fall and harvest it the following July. It’s perfectly winter-hardy throughout our area.

To get started, buy one or more beautiful heads of garlic from a farmers market, roadside stand or garden center. You can also mail-order garlic, but by now it’s too late for this year. You can try growing garlic from the supermarket, but your results may be mixed. Choose only the best-looking heads for your garden. The wrapper leaves should be smooth, and the head should feel firm (not soft or spongy).

Break the head into individual cloves, and use only the largest ones for planting. Don’t peel the papery covering off the cloves, but give each one a gentle squeeze and again to be sure they’re firm and smooth. There is a common disease that turns the ends of the cloves brown; discard those if you find them.

The main requirement garlic has is well-drained soil. If your soil is heavy or tends to stay wet in the spring, consider using a raised bed instead. Take a look at your cloves to figure out which end is up. The base of the clove is where it was attached to the head, and the tip is the pointy end. Plant each clove — pointy end up — 2 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Two inches deep means the tip of the bulb should be 2 inches below the soil.

You want these cloves to just grow roots this fall with no top growth. We used to recommend planting garlic in early October, but the weather has been pretty mild these past years so now you should probably wait until late October to plant. Last year, we had several calls from people whose garlic was putting out lots of leaves because we had such warm weather into November.

I like to add a thick layer of straw mulch or chopped leaves after planting my garlic or, better yet, wait until the ground has gotten good and cold in November and then add the mulch. Next spring, as soon as the ground starts to thaw, pull back most of the mulch, leaving just a couple of inches. The garlic leaves will easily push up through this mulch. The latest recommendations are to fertilize once as soon as you see the first garlic leaves emerging, then again one month later. That is all the extra fertilizer they need.

Garlic loves cool weather, so most of your growth will occur in spring. Keep it well-watered and weeded, and sit back and watch.

If you have the hardneck type of garlic, it will produce a flowering scape that grows into a big curlicue. It helps to remove those scapes to direct energy back to the bulb. The scapes are edible and are especially nice sauteed or used as a garnish.

The other type of garlic is softneck, and it does not produce scapes. To tell what kind you have, look for a hard stem in the center of the head of garlic. Hardneck types have that hard central stem; softnecks do not. Both are delicious and hardy in our climate.

Wait to harvest your garlic until about half of the leaves have yellowed, sometime in July.

For more information about growing garlic, you can call our office or visit Cornell’s Growing Guides pages at:

Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: Email questions to