What is the absolute easiest edible plant you can grow? I spent my entire morning contemplating that question, and nothing came to mind that beats garlic. As everyone knows, it's a bulb, planted in the fall, grown through the winter, and harvested in very early summer. It requires no special care during the growing season, and has absolutely innumerable uses. Let's talk about this incredible plant.
Interestingly, garlic is a member of the Amaryllis family, which includes a good variety of ornamental flowers, such as Surprise Lilies, Agapanthus, Daffodils, Crinums, and many others. Most of the edible "underground pungents" are in this same family; goodies such as onions, chives, leeks, and, of course, garlics, are all in this family. The family is characterized by bulbous underground structures, monocot seedlings, and linear leaves, with flowers blooming in umbels, typically tall on a rigid and hollow stem.
When the August heat finishes and we head into September, the air takes on a slightly cooler feel and the beginnings of the fall rains start to provide some relief from the long dry months of summer. That's the time to take your garlic cloves, break them apart, and plant each "toe" into the garden, about 3 to 4 inches deep and perhaps 12 inches apart from each other. The soil should be nice and rich, well drained, and preferably mulched with a few inches of wood chips or other good organic mulch. The site should be in full sun. Once they're planted, you're pretty much done until harvest time.
Within a few weeks you'll see their grass-like foliage protrude from the ground, and as fall continues they'll get bigger and bigger. Over winter they will continue to grow and provide nice green foliage for winter interest. When springtime warms the soil and the days increase in length, they'll really start putting on major growth, growing wide and tall, with most varieties reaching upwards of 2 feet tall.
So, when do you harvest? Different varieties have different times, but here in East Texas most of my garlic is ready by mid June. Take a look at the stem: You'll notice a central stem with leaves whorled around it. As with onions, each leaf corresponds to a layer around the bulb. The leaves will start turning brown from the bottom up. Each leaf that turns brown and dry means there's another layer wrapped around that bulb. Ideally you're looking for 5 to 6 dry leaves, which means you've got a nice group of layers of papery protection around the bulb. Take a thin and long shovel (sharpshooter) or pitchfork to loosen the soil around the plant, and then pull it right out of the ground, being careful not to damage the bulbs.
They'll come out of the ground fairly fresh and green, so you'll want to cure the garlic before putting it up or using it. I like to take all my harvested garlic plants out to the grass, spread them all out in a nice long row, and using the jet setting on my hose sprayer, spray off all the dirt and debris until I have squeaky-clean bulbs on the end of each clean stalk.
Then I'll take 3 plants and start braiding the three together. As the braid gets long, I add a new plant. Continue braiding and adding plants until you get a long chain of garlics that could be 8 feet long or longer! Hang this braided chain in an area that gets good airflow, and leave it hanging for a few weeks to dry. You'll know it's good and dry when the layers are papery and it looks and feels like the garlic you've bought in the stores. At that point you can bring it indoors and store in your pantry or basement. I don't refrigerate it, I just keep it cool and dry. Properly cured and stored garlic will easily hold for 4 to 5 months, just in time to plant again!
To see photos and a lengthier explanation of the harvesting of garlic, check out this article: When Is the Right Time To Harvest Garlic?
I don't need to tell you how awesome garlic is in the kitchen. Its culinary and medicinal uses cannot be counted. We use it nearly every day, and life without garlic, well, it would be like a life devoid of music, light, and color. The crushed garlic toes are the primary use of this plant, but the leaves and flowers can also be eaten. They are milder than the bulbs, and are delicious in many recipes. Some will tell you to store garlic bulbs in oil, but I have read that this can promote the growth of the dreaded, feared, and deadly botulism bacteria. To avoid that, I simply store them dry until I use or plant them. I will, however, occasionally crush some garlic, mix it with clarified butter, and freeze. Then when I pull it out for use, I have garlic butter ready for recipes.
Anyway, back to the garden. The garlic plant also has many uses. In addition to repelling vampires, garlic will repel all sorts of bad garden bugs, like aphids. We plant garlic around our roses for this reason, and also because my reading has always suggested that garlic helps protect against fungal pathogens that often affect roses. My wife Trish will blend up garlic along with hot peppers and other herbs, especially sage, and then strain the soup into a jar, for a powerful spray that will deter even the most pesky insects. Stink bugs flee from our tomatoes, and squash bugs are disappointed when they visit our squash plants, as long as we periodically spray, using the mix she prepared.
Which garlic should you grow? Well, you could make things easy and simply go to the grocery store, buy some whole garlic, bring it home and plant it. Or you could go to one of those fancy big city organic stores and get you some of that gourmet garlic and do the same with it. Planting the bulbs means you will harvest the genetically identical variety next year. There are many online sellers who will sell you specific varieties, and they usually also offer variety mixes containing several kinds to try. You can grow softnecks, hardnecks, and every kind in between. Some have strange shapes, many have odd colors, some are hotter and some are sweeter, but they are all excellent and all worth growing and tasting. On our East Texas farm, we prefer to grow the 'Early Red Italian' because it comes reliably early, stores very well, and has a flavor that we prefer.
Our garlic database at All Things Plants
currently lists 84 cultivars of garlic, and we have lots of pictures, data points and comments that you can read. For further reading, I suggest you check out:
» All About Garlic
» Garlic, Part I
» Garlic, Part II
» Garlic, Part III