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Plant your garlic in the fall for next summer's crop

Long green garlic shoots grow up out of ground covered in straw mulch
Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media
Fall-planted garlic grows at the Iowa State University Student Organic Farm north of Ames.

Garlic may not be the first crop that comes to mind when thinking of Iowa, but many varieties do very well in the state's cooler, northern climate. The perfect time to plant garlic for next summer’s harvest is right after the first frost in fall. If you want to cook up a stinky storm come July, all you’ll need is a bit of time, care and patience.

To help you on your way, we’ve compiled a guide for how to plant, care for, harvest and store your garlic. Grab your cloves and your trowel: garlic planting season is upon us!

When to start planting garlic

Regardless of the variety you choose, you’ll want to start planting your garlic after the first frost of fall and about four weeks before the first hard freeze. If you plant too late, the roots won’t be able to establish themselves before the ground becomes too hard, so your yield will be damaged next year. If you plant too early, the garlic will send up shoots that can be damaged by a freeze.

To avoid these timing hazards, plan to plant your garlic any time between the middle of October and the first week of November.

How to choose the right garlic type and variety

There are two types of garlic: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck varieties do relatively well in colder climates and are most often grown in Iowa. They produce flowering stalks, known as garlic scapes, and have larger but fewer cloves than the garlic you buy at the store. The most commonly planted varieties of hardneck garlic in Iowa are:

  • Spanish Roja
  • German Red 
  • German Extra Hardy
  • Music

Softneck garlic is the kind you buy at the store. It has a long storage life, but it’s not as robust as hardneck and doesn’t grow as well in Iowa. However, there are a few varieties that are better suited for the climate.

  • Inchellium Red
  • New York White
  • Susanville 

Did you know? You can braid softneck garlic to hang in your home as decorative storage or for easy access to cloves in your kitchen! 

How to plant garlic

Garlic is generally grown by planting cloves from the previous year’s harvest. Once you know what variety (or varieties!) you want to plant, you can find heads of “seed” garlic at local nurseries, farmers markets and on mail-order sites. If you planted garlic the year before, you can also use undamaged bulbs from your own harvest.

NOTE: Don’t plant garlic bought at the grocery store! Garlic sold in stores is generally grown in a milder climate. It may be carrying disease and it’s often treated with compounds that limit sprouting, so you’ll have a very sorry yield come summer. 

Preparing the ground

Garlic is a heavy feeder, so you’ll need to prepare the soil before planting. First, choose a spot in your garden that gets full sun, then add a complete fertilizer (a fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) to your garden bed. Use approximately one pound of fertilizer per 100 square feet, and mix it into the soil well.

Once your soil is prepared, you can plant your garlic cloves in furrows that are one and a half to two feet apart. Place the largest cloves, skin on and point-side up, about one to two inches down in the soil, spacing the cloves five to seven inches apart, and cover them over.

NOTE: Don’t break apart the cloves until planting to make sure they stay undamaged. Damaged cloves may rot before they can sprout and grow a bulb. 

 A two panel graphic. The first panel depicts furrows in a garden bed spaced 1.5 to 2 feet apart. The second panel depicts garlic cloves planted 1 to 2 inches under the soil and spaced 5 to 7 inches apart.
Graphic By Sumner Wallace
Furrows should be spaced one and a half to two feet apart. Cloves should be planted in the furrows approximately one to two inches below the soil and five to seven inches away from each other.

Caring for your garlic

Winter: To keep your garlic cozy through the winter, mulch the soil with about five inches of straw in late fall. The mulch will help keep moisture in the ground for the developing roots and insulate the plants to prevent cold damage.

Spring: When you see shoots coming up the following spring, it’s time to remove the straw. Push it to the sides of the plants to reduce weeds — garlic doesn’t like competition. Three to four weeks later, add another pound or two of fertilizer to the side of your rows to keep your garlic fed and happy.

Summer: Garlic requires one inch of water per week. When the weather is dry during late spring and early summer, water your garlic once a week. Dry soil is a signal to the garlic that its growth period is ending, so stop watering in late July to prepare it for harvest.

Harvesting garlic

August is generally harvest season for garlic in Iowa, but some varieties may be ready in July. A good indicator of readiness is when 20 – 40% of the leaves have dried up and yellowed. When you’re ready to harvest, loosen the soil carefully with a fork and don’t pull the garlic up by the leaves.

If you’re unsure about the timing, you can always dig up one plant right when the leaves start to dry up to see if the bulb is segmented and the cloves have filled out. If they haven’t, leave your other garlic plants to grow for a couple more weeks.

NOTE: Hardneck garlic is a two for one deal: scapes and cloves. The ideal time to remove garlic scapes is when they start to curl — usually around mid-May to mid-June, a month before harvesting the bulbs. 

Curing and storing garlic

After harvesting your garlic plants in their entirety, hang them in a shaded area for a few weeks to cure. Once the bulbs are dried out, you can cut the tops down to about one inch and trim the roots. Alternatively, you can eat some of your garlic fresh out of the garden without curing.

Garlic should be stored in a cool, dry place (i.e. a basement or cellar) and will last for several months, ideally until you harvest again the next summer. If you intend to plant garlic again in the fall, save your largest bulbs to use as seed.

Sumner Wallace is an intern for IPR’s digital team. Sumner grew up in Iowa City, but now attends Oberlin College in Ohio, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Rhetoric and Media Studies with a minor in Chemistry. She has also worked for Little Village Magazine and The Oberlin Review.