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Growing Garlic, North & South

Q. I enjoy growing herbs but my husband (who does the cooking) doesn't use many. He does use a ton of garlic. I know it's normally grown over the winter, and I'd like to try it this year. My concern is our warm climate in central Florida. Are there specific types that would do better here? Any special tips?"

---Nicole in Tampa (USDA Growing Zone 9 a)

A. She's asking the right person; I LOVE growing garlic!

Now, it's far from the only thing I grow. I've gotten very good at caring for the raspberries, wineberries, dewberries, Alpine strawberries and other fruits my berry-mad wife loves. And I grow great tomatoes, peppers, salad greens, potatoes and herbs. But I have a special affinity for my garlic. I love how it grows, how it tastes, the almost continuous cycle of planting, harvesting and replanting. Right now, in mid-August, I look like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin as I sort through the heads I pulled back in July to pick out the biggest cloves for replanting next month. If I had more room, I'll fill a pool with garlic cloves and swim through them!

Back to Earth, McGrath. Now—that 'biggest cloves' part is important. You should always use the smallest cloves for cooking and save the biggest ones for replanting; that way, you only get big cloves after a couple of years—at least with hardneck varieties.

But the big question here is: Can Nicole have big or small clove success in Florida? And does she need to stick with only softneck varieties? After all, that's always been my line. Softnecks for the South and West; hardnecks for the North.

The hardneck types—so named because the stalks get stiff after harvest—love growing through really cold winters. They tend to already have naturally big cloves—and a huge diversity of flavors and colors. (Mine have beautiful purple and red-colored wrappers….)

Unfortunately, you tend not to get those colors with softneck varieties—so named because their stalks stay soft and flexible after harvest. Sometimes called 'California garlic', these types are less reliant on winter chill, great for braiding, and store for a much longer period of time without sprouting after harvest. But you're not going to get those really vivid wrapper colors; and there's a natural tendency for the heads to produce more small cloves.

And even though they generally do well in warm climes, softnecks theoretically require some winter chilling…

At least it seems that they do. It's really hard to nail down. There just has not been a lot of 'proper' research on garlic growing—especially in warmer climes. Most of what we know about growing garlic comes from farmers and small-scale hobbyists like me. (I grow about 200 plants a season; that's small to me….)

Some sources say that warm climate growers need 60 days of temps that dip into the low 50s to get good heads. Others say that anything close to that—like just a good number of cool nights—is enough. Some sources even say that you might be able to grow some hardneck varieties in regions with mild winters. But it's all mostly just talk; there isn't much—if any—of the kind of peer-reviewed data you'll find on cash crops like tomatoes and peppers.

So: Here's my advice for growing garlic in very mild regions: Purchase a number of different varieties of planting garlic that are described as doing well in warm climes. Stick with mostly softnecks; but if you see a hardneck variety touted as being able to perform well in warmer areas, give it a try! Then handle your heads two different ways.

• Plant some outside in a raised bed—or even in a big container if you're in an area as warm as central Florida. But do that planting much later than we would in the North; wait until well after Thanksgiving.

(The timing in the North, where I live? I used to wait until the supposedly 'lucky' Columbus Day in early October. But an older Italian gentleman told me years ago that I should plant when the kids go back to school; and my garlic has been great ever since. But again, warm climate growers definitely want to wait until most nights are at least a little cool.)

• In addition, put a few heads of each variety in a paper bag in the fridge for a couple of months and then plant the cloves outside in—say, February. Yes; I know: Garlic in the fridge?! That's sacrilege! And it would be if we were going to eat it; but this is planting stock. We're pre-chilling the heads to make sure that they get that 60 days' worth of cool temps. (This is what's done with most Spring bulbs sold in the South and other warm climes—they're pre-chilled to replace the winter they won't get to experience naturally.)

And planting garlic in the 'Spring'?! My head is spinning!

While it's something I would never do in the North, it is recommended for regions with warm winters. And if winter does turn out to be too warm for the outside plants to develop correctly, she'll have the pre-chilled bulbs to fall back on.

Okay—basic garlic planting instructions:

Gently pull apart the heads and use any cloves that are damaged or missing parts of their wrapper for cooking. Plant the perfect ones in your loosest lightest, best-draining soil. Raised Beds are ideal for garlic. If your soil is heavy, lighten it up before planting by mixing in some perlite and/or a very light and loose natural potting or seed starting mix—nothing with chemical fertilizers or water holding crystals.

Plant the cloves pointy end up about four inches down; six inches in really cold climes. Your cloves may sprout in the Fall or not—doesn't matter. Mulch the bed with an inch of really well-shredded leaves—run them through the shredder twice—or use a light loose mulch like pine straw. In areas with nasty cold winters, you can make the mulch a couple of inches deep; but not heavy; and wait to mulch until the soil freezes hard for the season.

And for harvest, early-season care and other tips, read through the previous garlic articles under—where else?—the letter "G", right here in our A to Z Answers archive!

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