Grow, Harvest, Cure and Store Great Garlic!
A wealth of information exists on the web and elsewhere about this subject - way more information than you'll probably ever need - so here are some of the basics. The best thing about garlic is that it is extremely satisfying and VERY EASY TO GROW!
Garlic requires no extraordinary "special care". It thrives in cold climates and the best flavor varieties even require harsh treatment from Mother Nature to be great. You plant it in the fall (October, November) and literally forget about it until early spring. It will magically pop out of the ground during one of those "fake spring" spells in February or March. The small tops will then be subjected to more abuse - laid flat by the next snow
storm or frost - but it will bounce right back and be big and healthy by April - fully able and willing to withstand all the forces that Mother Nature sometimes uses to "test" us as gardeners.
You have to plant it in full sun. Your soil should be worked/tilled - the finer the better, but it doesn't have to be perfect! The winter will dissolve your clods eventually - I've seen great crops come from cloddy soils with plenty of vegetative "trash" present at planting (like after a corn crop). Don't plant in the same ground you grew garlic in last year.
First, break (split) your planting bulbs up into individual cloves being careful not to bruise them by squishing or breaking the skins - don't let a lot of time go by before you actually plant the cloves - a day or two at most. Cull (and keep for eating) any cloves that are very small or damaged. Very important rule: BIG CLOVES MAKE BIG GARLIC!
Prepare beds - or create them as you plant. You need beds for a couple of reasons, but drainage may be the most important - you don't want to expose your crop to "standing water" - the beds keep the bulbs somewhat elevated and provide channels for excess water to disburse.
I've had good luck planting rows with garlic cloves placed 4 across, with about 5 inches spacing in all directions like this:
The bed is not greatly elevated - maybe only a few inches.
The cloves have a pointed end which must be planted up - the butt end goes down!
Insert the cloves into the ground - don't just jam them in!... use your fingers to protect the clove as you "place" it at a depth where it will be covered by about 2 inches of dirt when finished. Pat down the soil on top.
At this point, most experienced garlic growers will swear that mulch is required - If nothing else, it's a good insurance policy - I've had many excellent crops without failures grown here - without mulch - in the cold, high desert country of Oregon (where the ground freezes). However, if at all possible - do it.
That mulch should be plant material (grass cuttings, chopped alfalfa are best) that has no seeds applied over the rows about 2 inches thick. It will moderate soil temperature and moisture conditions - help prevent dramatic swings that cause erratic growth. It will eventually be incorporated into your soil, adding organic material. Also, fewer weeds will greet you in the spring.
At this stage, many people will water their patch to settle the soil and ensure that the cloves begin some root production prior to winter. I never have, and have actually planted in very dry conditions - with no storms arriving for a couple of weeks and have never had any problems. If the water source is easy, it's probably a good idea - some do it before mulching, some after - doing it before might cause problems getting mulch placed properly because of mud, etc., especially if a big storm roles in while you're waiting for the patch to dry out a little!
Keep your patch weeded in the spring - get 'em while they're small and stay after it! By June, you should be about done with this problem - you can simply lay the pulled weeds amongst the plants as additional mulch. Garlic doesn't like weeds and your bulb size and quality will be greatly reduced by letting the weeds take over.
Watch your soil moisture in the spring - don't over-water (ie, soggy for extended periods) but do no not let the patch completely dry out.
Remove (cut) the flower stems - called "scapes" - from the plants that produce them - the hardnecks - after they have curled - see the picture. This helps your plants not lose the energy spent on flowering and should make bigger bulbs. Scapes are a great bonus. Save the scapes and use them - see the section on scapes.
Your garlic will be ready to harvest beginning in early July and extending into August depending on the variety and your climate. There are all types of "rules" about number of brown leaves, etc. It's better to harvest too early rather than too late. Start paying attention when leaves start to turn brown. They'll start at the bottom- when about 1/3 have turned, it's about time - check a few samples - the cloves should have started to bulge but not separate at the top. Get them before they start to split!
Be careful pulling the garlic out of the ground - unless your soil is extremely sandy, you'll need to loosen it with a pitchfork or shovel - you must not damage or tear the stem while lifting the entire plant out of the ground.
Don't leave the freshly dug garlic out in the sun - clean or brush off the majority of the dirt (do not wash!) from the bulb and the roots without damaging the skins - leave the roots in tact - move to a covered place where air circulates freely - either hang in bunches of about 10 or spread out on flat surface where air can get to all sides. The curing process takes 3 or 4 weeks.
Curing dries the skins while the garlic retains its juices - it is now time to cut off the stalks an inch or two above the bulb (not exposing the tops of the cloves!) and trim off the roots. Clean your bulbs - some do it with a brush, some just rub the dirt off, some remove a layer of skin - but the main concern should be to not damage the skins any more than necessary. It's probably OK to lose the outermost skin layer, but the less lost, the better.
Store and label your garlic - mesh bags, paper bags and garlic "keepers" are great - garlic has to breathe and air circulation is important - ideally, keep it in the dark and at a moderate (60 - 70 degrees) temperature - refrigerating garlic will cause it to become too moist - also it will sprout soon after exposure to warmer temps.
If you're looking for garlic growing resoures, I've found the following books to be very helpful:Garlic, Garlic, Garlic by Linda Griffith and Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engeland. Both can be purchased through Amazon.com via the links below.