Gardening Tips: Garlic Revisited

Editor’s Note: We’re reaching into Michelle’s Smith’s archives for posts as useful now as when they were first published. This was last republished on 30 September 2020.


What to do this week

I think we had better talk about planting garlic. It’s getting to be that time. I know it doesn’t feel like it because it’s warm, but this weather is not seasonable. You need to start thinking about garlic now because it will be that time in a couple of weeks.

Garlic. (Photo By KoS, modified by SuperManu, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Garlic. (Photo By KoS, modified by SuperManu, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Demand for seed garlic is high. Everyone loves garlic (or they should) and it is easy to grow. It becomes more popular every year, and the garden centers sell out, so even though you may not plant for a few weeks, you had better get your seed garlic now.

I like to plant my garlic around the Thanksgiving weekend. By then the weather is starting to get cold. Garlic bulbs need cold. They need the winter. It has to be cold enough that the initial root system starts, but doesn’t develop so much that the plant fails to go to sleep for the winter. You can get away with planting garlic in late November in Cape Breton, sometimes even later, but the later you plant, the more mulch you will have to pile on. If you are late, that mulch will protect it and give it time to settle in. It is ideal to plant it a bit earlier, though.

You can tuck garlic in almost anywhere in your yard, like any kind of bulb. It doesn’t have to be planted in rows in the vegetable garden. But unlike tulips and daffodils, which you could just plant in the lawn if you like, it does like relatively weed-free soil. Also, like all alliums, it is a heavy feeder. You want to give it a good bit of compost, dug into the bed, and maybe even a bit of bone meal.

Obviously (although actually it may not be so obvious), be sure to plant it pointy side up, butt end down. Garlic will grow down and around and back up, but that energy is best used elsewhere. Upside down garlic could also be difficult to pull.

I don’t actually plant my garlic very deep. Often you will see a recommendation of six inches, since it does need to be protected from the winter cold. I find that it takes too long for the soil to warm up in the spring, and for the garlic to break through to the surface if you plant it that deep. Sometimes the bulb can even rot while it is waiting for the soil to warm up. I plant it about three inches deep, which is deep enough, and then I cover it with a good amount of mulch. Unlike the warning I usually give about high carbon mulch, such as straw, you can go ahead and use it here because you will move that mulch in spring. This mulch will protect the bulb from frost heaves, which we can get here in Cape Breton in the fall, in the spring, and even in mid-winter as we get freezing and thawing in cycles.

Some people plant any old garlic, and you might be lucky, but it is better if you choose local garlic. That will guarantee that it is a variety that is well adapted to Cape Breton. If you just buy supermarket garlic, which might be from China, it is possible it has been sprayed with a sprouting inhibitor to extend its shelf life. You don’t want that. You want something that is willing to sprout, and willing to grow. Also, it might be a variety that is not adapted to our climate. There are hundreds of garlic varieties, and some do better in our northern winters than they would in China. It is easy to grow garlic, but easier if you start with a variety that does well here.

Another thing to consider is that garlic for eating is not necessarily the same as garlic marketed for seed. It depends on the quality of the garden center, but if you use a good center, you can be more secure that the garlic they sell as seed is clean and completely free of fungus and other disease. If you grow a lot of garlic, and you plant bad seed, you could introduce pathogens into your soil and not be able to grow any allium for years to come. This may not be a problem if you only plant a few in among the flowers, but if you are near a reputable garden center that sells seed garlic, you can plant it with much greater confidence.

Another consideration is how much to plant. It takes a little experimentation, and a little math, and it depends on how many cloves per head the garlic variety you grow has. Depending on the variety, garlic can have four, five, six, up to eight cloves, so just do the math. You can plant a little extra for your own seed, and never have to buy seed garlic again. Bear in mind that you will have some loss, so add a bit even after you finish your math.

I could sell all of my garlic, but then I wouldn’t have any to plant. So when I run out, you can be sure I am just guaranteeing that I have garlic to sell you next year!

Featured image: Garlic by Madeline Yakimchuk


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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.