How to grow garlic

A handful of purple garlic bulbs

Home-grown garlic takes up little space and requires little effort to get a good harvest. It’s an easy crop to grow, spouting from a garlic bulb separated into cloves, which you plant individually. Certified, disease-free garlic bulbs are sold at garden centres or online.

There are two types of garlic to grow: softneck garlic and hardneck garlic.

Softneck varieties
Softneck is the most common garlic type in supermarkets. Softnecks provide the greatest number of cloves per bulb – up to 18. They have a white, papery skin, store well and rarely bolt (produce a flower stalk). However, softneck garlic is less tolerant of prolonged cold temperatures and is therefore best suited to growing in milder southern counties in the UK, although it can be grown elsewhere with winter protection.

Hardneck varieties
Hardneck garlic has fewer cloves per bulb – usually 10 or less. They are generally hardier than softneck types and can be grown throughout the UK.

Hardneck types will often produce a curling flower stalk or ‘scape’. This straightens out as it matures to carry a head of tiny clove-like bulbils. It is best to remove the scape as soon as it appears (use it in stir-fries) so the plant diverts its energies into producing a larger bulb. If left to develop on the plants, you can harvest and plant the bulbils, but it may take up to three years to form a decent bulb.

There’s also elephant garlic, which bears giant, mild-flavoured bulbs, which you can grow for a lighter garlic taste.

Growing garlic

Grow garlic in a warm, sunny spot, in fertile, free-draining soil that doesn’t get too wet in winter. Always buy bulbs at the garden centre or order from a seed supplier – don’t use bulbs from the supermarket.

Break up the bulbs into separate cloves and plant the large ones with the fat end downwards and the pointy end 2.5cm below the soil surface. Harvest from July onwards, once the top growth has begun to die back. Leave the bulbs to dry in the sun for a few days before storing.

When to plant garlic

Garlic is usually planted in late autumn or early winter, but if you have a heavy soil you may have more success from planting in early spring. Plant garlic bulbs directly in the ground or start them off in small pots if you have heavy soil. Garlic can also be planted in a large container.

Growing garlic: jump links


How to plant garlic

Splitting a garlic bulb into cloves
A garlic bulb being split into cloves to be planted

Most varieties of garlic are best planted in late autumn or early winter, as the cloves need a period of cold weather to develop into bulbs.

Make sure your soil is clear of weeds and the remains of summer crops. Before planting garlic, dig in some home-made compost or well-rotted manure and rake over well. Push cloves in, or use a dibber to make holes 15cm apart, leaving 30cm between rows. Birds have a penchant for the bulbs and will pull them out of the soil, so lay bird netting or horticultural fleece over new plants until the shoots are 5cm tall. In cold areas, you may need to cover plants with cloches over winter. This extra protection will encourage root growth, so the plants are ready to grow next spring.

Can you plant supermarket garlic?

It is possible to grow garlic from supermarket bulbs but it’s not recommended as there’s a risk of virus infection. If you buy from proper planting stock, it should be virus-free. You can also choose a variety that has been bred especially for your climate.

Watch the video below to see Monty Don demonstrating how to plant garlic, with advice on planting depth and varieties to grow.

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If you have heavy clay soil, you can start off by planting garlic cloves singly in module trays in autumn and then growing them on in a cold frame. This prevents the bulbs rotting in very wet soil during winter. You can then plant these out in spring, when the soil has dried out a little.

You could also try growing garlic in mounds of soil, 15cm high and 20cm wide at the base. Plant the garlic cloves into these mounds, 15-20cm apart and 7-10cm deep. Because the soil is slightly raised, it doesn’t get as wet, so the garlic is less likely to rot.

Planting garlic
Garlic cloves being planted into pots of containing soil

How to grow garlic in a container

If you have no space, or your plot has been affected by onion white rot in the past, then growing in containers is for you. Use any pot that’s at least 15cm wide and 15cm deep, filled with peat-free, multi-purpose compost. Sow three cloves in a 15cm-wide pot, six in a 30cm one.

Feed from April when you see strong spring growth, using a high nitrogen feed such as dried chicken manure pellets, or fill the container to the top with more compost. Stop feeding in mid-May.

Watch the video, below, to see Monty plant garlic in a container, with advice on drainage and feeding.

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How to care for garlic

Garlic needs little care. Water regularly in spring and early summer, but reduce this once you see the foliage turning yellow – this is a sign that the bulbs are reaching maturity.

Weed between the plants to reduce the competition for water and nutrients. This is best done by hand, as hoeing could damage the developing bulbs. Remove any flowers, or ‘scapes’, that the plants produce – you can eat these in stir-fries.


Growing garlic: problem solving

Garlic is generally pest free and is only affected by a few problems:

Birds
Birds, especially pigeons, will take freshly planted garlic cloves from the ground and will also eat recently germinated plants. Cover the area with netting or horticultural fleece immediately after planting and don’t remove it until the young plants are at least 5cm tall.

Onion white rot
Onion white rot is hard to detect until it’s too late – the first sign that anything is wrong is usually yellowing, wilting foliage, which tends to occur around harvest time, when you’d expect the leaves to be dying back anyway. When you dig up the plant, you’ll notice a white fluffy fungus on the base of the bulb, along with tiny black growths. In severe cases, the bulb will be black and rotten. 

Onion white rot is a soil-borne disease, so there is no control and the problem can persist for years. Avoid spreading the problem around the garden on boots and tools, as the disease can affect the whole allium family, including onions and leeks. Dig up all of the affected plants and bin or burn them – do not add them to the compost heap. You may be able to salvage some of your crop to eat, but it won’t store well. In future, grow garlic in containers, in fresh soil that does not come from the garden.

Leek rust
Garlic can be affected by leek rust, a fungal infection that is more common in wet weather. There is no cure. Orange pustules appear on the leaves in summer, which then begin to die back. The bulbs are perfectly safe to eat but it’s a good idea to harvest affected plants immediately to prevent the disease spreading, and to eat them straightaway. Dispose of the rest of the plant material (bin or burn it, don’t add to the compost heap), and avoid growing garlic, leeks and onions in the same place for three years. Choose a variety that has some resistance to rust and space out plants to reduce humidity. 

Watch Monty Don’s video guide, below, on dealing with rust on garlic:

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How to harvest garlic

How to grow garlic - harvesting garlic
Freshly harvested garlic drying outdoors

Harvest garlic in summer when the leaves turn yellow. Gently lift out bulbs with a fork or trowel, taking care not to damage the bulbs. Leave the garlic to dry out for a couple of days, by laying it out on a table or tray, in full sun.

Watch Monty Don’s video guide to harvesting garlic, below.

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How to store garlic

How to grow garlic - plaiting garlic
Garlic foliage being plaited

Once the bulbs are dry and feel papery to touch, you can either store them loose or plait their foliage to make a traditional string of bulbs. Store in a cool, dry place. Take care not to bruise the bulbs, as any damage can make them deteriorate in storage.

Bear in mind that softneck garlic varieties store better than hardneck garlic and should keep for several months, so eat the hardneck varieties first.


How to prepare and use garlic

Crush, slice or finely chop, or roast cloves whole, to add flavour to many dishes. Hardneck varieties tend to have more flavour than softnecks, so work well when roasted whole.

Watch this 23-second video demonstration from our friends at olive magazine on how to chop and crush garlic.

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Advice on buying garlic

Here’s our guide to buying garlic, including where to buy garlic. 

 

  • Always buy from a garden centre or online seed supplier – do not use bulbs from the supermarket
  • Choose from softneck or hardneck garlic. Softneck varieties tend to be hardier and last longer, but hardnecks are said to have more depth of flavour
  • Check the garlic bulbs to make sure they have no signs of mould and are firm to touch

Where to buy garlic online


Great garlic varieties to grow

Garlic ‘Early Purple Wight’

Garlic 'Early Purple Wight'
Garlic ‘Early Purple Wight’

This softneck variety produces mild, purple-tinged bulbs. As its name suggests, it crops very early, from mid-May. It doesn’t store well, so use within three months.

 

Garlic ‘Iberian Wight’

Allium sativum 'Iberian Wight'
Garlic ‘Iberian Wight’

This softneck variety from Spain has large bulbs with plump cloves. Good for plaiting, it stores well.

 

Garlic ‘Solent Wight’

Garlic 'Solent White'
Garlic ‘Solent Wight’

This softneck variety was bred on the Isle of Wight, so is well suited to the UK climate. It has small bulbs with a strong flavour and keeps well.

 

Garlic ‘Cristo’

Garlic 'Wight Christo'
Garlic ‘Wight Cristo’

This softneck variety is reliable, easy to grow and produces large bulbs. It can be planted in autumn or spring, and stores well.

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