Garlic is a versatile crop for Gulf Coast gardens. It can be grown in the ground, in containers, in raised beds, and square foot gardens with equal success. As with many vegetables and herbs in the South, the trick is timing and choosing the right variety.
Garlic has been in cultivation for centuries. It is thought to have originated in Central Asia and it has been used since Neolithic times to flavor food. It has also been used as a medicinal herb by multiple cultures from ancient times until today.
Garlics fall in to two main types – softnecks and hardnecks. This refers to the scape, or flowering stalk. Softnecks do not form a scape, hardnecks do. This will come into play in the cultivation section below.
In general, softnecks are less hardy and prefer a warmer climate. They produce smaller bulbs and have a longer storage life. Hardnecks are quite hardy, produce a larger bulb, and have a shorter storage life. As usual, there are exceptions to these generalities, which can be found in the descriptions of varieties of garlics.
One difference to take into consideration is the content of allicin in the variety you choose. Allicin is the biologically active ingredient in garlic that has anti-microbial and health benefits. Hardnecks have up to 3X the allicin compared to softnecks.
Because the softnecks prefer a warmer climate, they are often favored in the coastal South, but many hardnecks will do well with proper vernalization. Vernalization is cold treatment, similar to that of blooming bulbs such as tulips. With garlic, this can be accomplished in the ground or in the refrigerator.
I prefer to grow the Creole garlics. Although most of us would assume that a garlic named ‘Creole’ has a French history, they really originated in Spain and were spread with the travels of the Conquistadors.
They are well suited for warm climates, and are among the longest storing garlics. They are the rarest and most expensive of garlics, and have been a little hard to find until recently. They are an heirloom species and are gaining popularity and availability along with the heirloom vegetable movement.
Buy organically grown bulbs from a reputable grower. Do not try to grow grocery store garlic since you cannot verify whether it is a good variety for our area, and since it may have been treated with a growth inhibitor.
Garlic is a fall-winter crop for the Gulf Coast. It is recommended that it be planted from October through early December, but I highly recommend that you monitor the weather rather than watch the calendar. There are years when it is still quite warm in October, and even into early November.
If you are planting softneck varieties, you can be a bit more lax, but if you are planting a hardneck variety you need to take the vernalization requirement into consideration. It can be vernalized in the ground if temperatures permit, but if it is still warm, and you wish to plant in October, you should be vernalizing the cloves in the refrigerator all through September.
I take the easy way out and wait until at least mid-November and have planted as late as late December to the first week of January. Garlic is a hardy plant that will grow throughout the winter on the Gulf Coast. Spring plantings have always proved disappointing for me.
Garlic requires loose, arable soil with lots of organic matter and good drainage. The largest bulbs will form in soils that have as much as 10% – 15% compost.
Apply ¼ cup per square foot of balanced, slow-release, organic fertilizer at planting and side dress with the same about halfway through the growing season (first half of March or so). Do not fertilize after the end of April as this will cause the plant to develop top growth rather than bulb size.
Separate the cloves within the bulb, but do not remove the skin from the individual cloves. Select the largest, plumpest cloves for planting. Plant the bulbs about 4” – 6” deep in prepared soil. Some sources recommend 2”, but this is not good in the temperate South. The soil temperature is more stable at 4” – 6” and a larger bulb will result.
Plant the pointed end up and the basal plate down. This is critical in garlic or the bulb will be deformed. Space the cloves 4” – 8” apart in rows, on 6” centers in wide beds, 4” – 6” apart in containers, and 4/sqft in SFGs. Garlic does need room to grow and it will form more of a root system than you would expect.
Culture during growth
Garlic does not compete well with weeds. Keep the soil free of weeds through hand-weeding or mulching. To avoid damaging the roots or the developing bulbs, do not cultivate mechanically. Mulching will control weeds and will help to moderate the soil temperature, which should help with bulb formation.
Garlic needs to be evenly moist, but never in soggy soils. It will benefit from drip irrigation. Garlic will continue to grow in drier soils, but flavor and bulb quality will suffer. Fortunately, since garlic is a fall and winter crop on the Gulf Coast, rainfall is usually sufficient until April, but monitor soil moisture closely.
If you are growing a hardneck variety, your garlic will need to be “scaped”. Scapes are a false seedhead. The tip will contain a bulblet or bulbil. These can be planted, but they take several years to develop an edible bulb and are generally not worth the effort.
Scaping is the removal of the developing stalk. Scaping directs the plants energy into bulb development rather than further development of the bulblet. The scapes are considered a delicacy and can be prepared a variety of ways. Scaping should be done when the head of the scape begins to curl down toward the stalk, like a goose or swan neck.
Garlic will stop growing when the soil temperature reaches 90°F. The bulb will not develop further. The lower leaves will yellow and then begin to brown. Harvest softneck varieties when the lower leaves have turned brown. Harvest hardnecks when about half their leaves have turned brown.
Harvest gently – new garlic bulbs are actually quite tender. Use a spading fork to loosen the soil and gently pull-lift the bulb from the ground. Shake off the loose dirt, but do not wash with water.
Trim the roots to ¼” or ½” long to prevent rot or fungal development. Do not trim the tops. Tie the tops together in groups of 5 – 6 plants and hang them in a dry, well-ventilated location out of direct sun. A garage, carport or covered patio is perfect as long as they can stay completely protected from rain and have sufficient airflow to prevent rot.
It’s best if the bulbs don’t actually touch each other. You can accomplish this by staggering them in the bunch or by spreading the stalk out with wadded up plastic shopping bags tucked between them. Garlic can also be laid out on a drying rack. It will take 4 – 6 weeks for the garlic to cure. It needs this time to dry, harden somewhat, and to develop the complex flavors we have come to enjoy.
During curing most of the loose soil will have fallen off the bulbs, but if any remains just rub it off the outer skins. After the garlic is cured, trim the tops (or braid them if you wish), re-trim any long roots to ¼” and brush any remaining soil out of them with a dry vegetable brush. Garlic will store for 6 – 9 months, depending on variety.
My favorite garlic
Rose de Lautrec – An exceptionally beautiful garlic with bright pink cloves. It is a “Creole” variety of garlic known for exceptional flavor. Technically, ‘Lautrec’ is the region in which this garlic is grown and it is not called Rose de Lautrec unless the bulb was actually harvested there. It is not a large bulb, but it is beautiful and is among the longest storing varieties.