Updated: Mar 30
Garlic is a pantry staple in most any home. Garlic is used around the world for the aromatic flavour it adds to a dish. It is also known for its many health benefits and its ability to strengthen the immune system. Growing garlic in zone 3 Alberta where I live has proven to be easy to do once I figured out the correct planting date, proper soil conditions and watering needs.
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Hard Neck vs. Soft Neck Garlic
There are two main types of garlic: hard neck and soft neck. Soft neck garlic grows well in warm climates with mild winters. Hard neck garlic is great for us in zone 3 and can withstand the hard, cold winters in our northern climate. Within the two main types there are hundreds of varieties of garlic.
Where to Plant Garlic
Planting garlic in well drained soil is important. It does not like "wet feet" and will rot without proper drainage. If your soil does not have good drainage try amending it by adding compost. Consider adding sand if you have particularly heavy soil. Plant in a full sun location that is protected from strong north winds in winter.
When to Plant Garlic
Garlic does best when it is planted in the fall. It is possible to plant it early in the spring but you will find that it will not grow to be as large. Plant 3 to 5 weeks after the first fall frost. If you are growing garlic in Alberta this means planting between October 7th and 15th. Right before Thanksgiving weekend in Canada is often the perfect time to plant your garlic!
How to Plant and Care for Garlic
To prepare your garlic for planting, separate you garlic bulbs into cloves. Try to keep the outer shell on the clove as it is less likely to rot when this is on. If it does come off you can still try to plant it or else save it for cooking in the near future! Don't plant the smallest inner cloves. Save those to be used in the kitchen. Plant your cloves 3 to 4 inches deep and 5 to 6 inches apart. Cover with soil. If the soil is dry, water once. If it is wet when you plant skip this watering. After planing, cover your soil with 2 to 3 inches of straw. I prefer straw to mulch or leaves as it insulates without holding excess moisture. The straw also works to minimise weeds. In the spring the garlic will poke through the straw but few weeds will make it through. Once planted, garlic requires little care and is low maintenance until harvest time. Be careful not to over water your garlic as that can cause it to rot or to develop mildew.
Garlic scapes are a bonus of growing hard neck garlic! Scapes will start to form in early to mid summer. These scapes are the seed bobuals and if left, the plant will put it's energy into producing seeds instead of growing the garlic head. For this reason it is best to remove them by clipping them off once they have curled around into a circle. They taste slightly different than garlic cloves but I find the taste quite pleasant. I have successfully used them in place of garlic cloves in any recipe I blend. Some of these recipes include pesto, soups and pasta sauces. After removing the scapes it is time quite watering your garlic to allow the skins to harden up and dry out prior to harvesting.
When and How to Harvest Garlic
Around two to three weeks after harvesting garlic scapes it is time to harvest your garlic. Look for signs of the bottom one to two leaves turning brown and the browning tips on the remaining leaves. For me this is around the second or third week in August. Once you see these signs it is time to harvest! Don’t try to pull your garlic. Doing so is difficult and likely to damage the heads. Instead carefully dig up the garlic, loosening the soil around it so it can be gently lifted out of the soil. Punctures in the skin or bruising will result in the garlic rotting and not storing as long. If you accidentally damage a head, set that one aside to use up first. Remove large clumps of soil attached to the head with your hand and leave remaining soil.
Place cloves in a place out of direct sunlight with good ventilation to dry for 24 to 48 hours. Once it has dried, brush off excess soil and broken skin. Trim garlic roots to 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch. I like to tie or braid mine and hang in a cool, dark dry place with good ventilation for 1 to 2 months to finish curing. Garlic can be stored for 6 to 8 months if it is stored in a dark place at 10 - 15°C (50 - 60°F).
Planting Garlic From Seed
If you decide to allow some of your scapes to go to seed, these can be dried and planted in the spring. Garlic takes two years to mature when grown from seed. The seeds can be planted and the growing plants left in the ground to overwinter until the second summer when they are ready to be harvested. To prepare them for winter the first year, cut back the tops to soil level and cover with straw.
Where to Purchase Garlic for Planting
One of my favourite places to order garlic from around Calgary, Alberta is Forage and Farms. Their garlic is hardy for zone 3, grows well, and has amazing flavour! I would not suggest using garlic from the grocery store unless it is labelled locally grown and organic. Otherwise it may have been treated with a anti growth hormone to keep it from sprouting.