We are heading into garlic growing season in New Zealand, and it’s an exciting time if you’re a garlic nerd like me.

We’re busy prepping 56m² of beds for this year’s grow. There are apartments smaller than the space I’ve allotted for growing garlic this year. It’s not full-scale agriculture, but it’s another step up from the 18m² we planted last year.

Right now, we’re busy weeding and adding amendments to the soil. The garlic gets planted in a few weeks.

I’ve written a few blogs about growing garlic now, but as I was working on the beds this week, I realised I’ve never collated the things I’ve learned into something easy(ish) to follow.

So I decided to break down what I do from planting to harvest this year. This will likely be two or three blogs published over the season. This is the first part: prepping the beds and planting your garlic.

Prepping your bed

Ideally, you get onto these steps as soon as possible. It helps if this happens a few weeks (or even months) before you plant. This means the nutrients you’re adding are actually available to the garlic when it needs them. I’m running a bit behind, but our beds will still have some time to rest and develop before planting.

Add lime

Calcium is the thing that helps plants form healthy, strong cells. It’s critical to a strong plant. Strong cells help prevent rust later in the season. Garlic with good calcium levels is better able to resist passing rust spores. One of the easiest ways to add calcium to your soil is through the application of lime.

Follow application guidelines. If you’re super-serious about it, get a soil test done. I got our soil tested a year ago, so I know roughly what my soil needs to grow better plants. I also add a product called EF NanoCal because I know my soil is low in calcium.

Knowing your calcium content and pH via a soil test will help you select what kind of lime to use (dolomite lime; lime; or gypsum), and how much to apply with more certainty about what it means for your overall soil balance.

Add organic matter

Compost, animal manure, blood and bone, sheep/chicken pellets, seaweed, fish guts, worm castings, green manure: they all work to improve your organic matter content. This will improve the overall nutrient content of the soil: important because garlic is a heavy feeder. Organic matter also helps improve your soils and retain moisture.

Whatever you have on hand is going to be good. If you’re buying it in, pick two or three things off the list above – compost and blood and bone are available pretty cheaply at most garden centers. Dig them in the first 10cm or so of soil with your lime.

We tend to use whatever manure is handy – this year it’s horse from our neighbour which has been rotting away for a few months. Last year it was cow straight off the paddock. I also add blood and bone.

Finally, we do add compost, but I tend to add that as a mulch layer once the garlic is about 10cm tall.

I know it works for us because when the pig attacked my garlic bed last year it wasn’t looking for vegetables: it was digging for worms. And those worms were there for the organic matter in my soils.

Sourcing and selecting

Most people won’t get much of a choice. You have to hunt down more unusual varieties. Koanga Institute sold out of heritage garlic within a couple of days this year.

I released some last Thursday and only have a few left as I write this. Or, you can try TradeMe, but it can turn into a bidding war and sometimes you don’t quite get what was advertised. Heritage garlic varieties are hard to find, and often come at a premium.

In the majority of garden stores, you’re only going to find ‘Printanor’ or ‘Elephant garlic’. I know. I got a job on the “inside” and have confirmed my long-held suspicion that it is literally the only choice available.

Elephant garlic is technically a leek, and will grow massive cloves. You know how us millennials laugh at recipes calling for ‘one clove of garlic’? You actually only want one clove of garlic ‘cos it’s bigger than your big toe. I won the 2019 North Kaipara Agricultural Association First Prize garlic with an Elephant garlic. The flavour is milder than with true garlic, and it’ll produce a flower called a ‘scape’ that you can cut off and add to a stirfry in spring.

Printanor is a French soft-necked spring garlic. It’s pretty much the only variety grown commercially for eating, or sold as seed garlic in New Zealand. I have never had much success with it, and my disregard for it is why I am now a weird garlic person. But there is a good chance you don’t have a choice. It’s all you can get – read on for some handy tips.

Timing your garlic

I prefer to get my garlic in early. I like planting in May. The weather is still OK and it makes great Christmas gifts. There’s also a school of thought that suggests the garlic is finished before ideal conditions for rust can occur. Traditionally, gardeners are told to plant on the shortest day in June. That’s worked fine for me as well. I’ve planted on 31 July and had a great harvest too. My point is you’ve got a decent window of opportunity here if planting heritage varieties.

Most garlics will take 6 months from planting to harvest. If you have access to a ‘Rocombole’ variety, it’ll be ready in 5 months. I found Elephant took a little longer, but I also haven’t had much luck with it since my early A&P show success.

Timing Printanor

However, if you are growing Printanor, may I suggest you disregard any advice about planting it on the shortest day? Last year I went down a rabbit-hole trying to work out why this variety is so freaking disappointing, and I stumbled on an article from 2010 that explains it. I quote the important bit here just in case it gets pulled from the internet sometime, but the full article is worth a read.

New garlic strains buck tradition

“He says that generally these days, planting garlic in June is too early.

This, he says, is because the tradition of planting on the shortest day and harvesting on the longest day related to the old American garlic varieties that “needed a big chill”. A lot of those old Californian varieties have died out and it’s now almost impossible to import that seed into New Zealand, Mr Murphy says.

Nowadays, most of the seed garlic available is of French origin, he explains, and one of the most common varieties is printanor, which comes from the French word printemps, meaning springtime.

These newer varieties are vigorous growers that only need about five months of growth. They should be planted in late winter – from late July, although Phoenix Garlic plants all its garlic in August.”

THIS is why when you plant it in June to pull it out in December, it’s disappointing. It didn’t get a chance to do it’s thing in the best (warm, dry) conditions. It doesn’t like the cold of winter so of course it doesn’t grow well!

“If you plant early, they will put down a lot of roots. You will have a bulb that’s not uniform in shape, and bursting at the edges.”

I don’t know about you, but that describes my attempts at growing Printanor perfectly.

So if you are someone stuck growing what your garden center stocks, try planting it later like the commercial guys. They harvest later, but they can grow it. I’m planning to give it another chance following this advice this year.

Printanor seed garlic is hitting stores now, so pick some up while it’s there. Store it somewhere dark and quite cool (between 10 and 20ºC is perfect) for a few months until you’re ready to plant.

Use the fattest cloves

The fat outside cloves are for planting. They have lots of energy reserved for growing a strong fat bulb. Eat the little inside cloves, they’re not going to grow into much.

Try not to break the bulb apart until you’re ready to plant it as it might weaken the energy the clove has stored for growing. The night before you plant, crack your garlic open and sort your cloves. Select your large cloves (keeping the skin on) and hold them in a container. Doing this step in the garden while planting sucks, especially if you’re planting lots. Doing it the night prior means you make better judgement calls about what’s worth planting.

The article above also recommends soaking the garlic in water for 20 minutes before planting. I’ve not tried this so I don’t have an opinion, but it clearly works for them.

Give as much space as you can

Dedicating 56m² of space to growing garlic for 6 months is quite a luxury. But it means I can grow lots of garlic with adequate spacing.

In a smaller garden, or in pots, spacing is one of the most difficult things to get right: space is at a premium, and 6 months is a lot of time to occupy that space. You plant them close together because garlic isn’t really that big when it’s standing upright, right?

Except when it’s planted close together, it creates the ideal environment for rust. Fresh garlic leaves do actually take up a lot of space, and cramming them together reduces airflow, encouraging rust to take hold.

So I run my rows 30cm apart, and plant each clove 20cm apart in the row. That gets me about 15 plants per square meter – 840 or so plants this year.

You are going to do what you’ve got to do, but try to give them as much space as you can. But definitely more than 10cm.

Planting depth

I don’t think this matters a whole lot. The general advice is to plant twice as deep as it is high. So if your clove was 25mm tall, your hole would be 50mm.

Going higher than this means your bulb grows closer to the surface. This can actually be pretty exciting because you can see them fattening up. But it also means the stalks are more likely to fall over in high winds, potentially stunting the plant.

Going lower than this firmly anchors the plant. We accidentally did this last year, and our crop survived pig attack. It probably takes a bit more energy to pop up, but we weren’t disappointed with the overall result.

We’ve experimented with techniques, but the easiest we’ve found is to run a string along the rows, and use a measuring tape or ruler to get the distancing along the row right. We’ve tried digging a long trench, but that gave us wonky rows with varying depths. Creating small holes with an appropriate tool, dropping the clove inside, and letting the soil cave back in is more efficient.

Tools I use for planting and maintaining my garlic

Hoe for weeding (top) and the tool I use to plant each clove individually (below).

I don’t know if it needs to be said, but the clove has a top and a bottom. The top is the pointy bit. The bottom usually has a rough flat bit.

Stand them up in the holes with the top at the top, and the bottom at the bottom.

Weirdly, they can flip themselves over if you mess this up, but it takes some extra energy to do so.

garlic cloves

Weed patrol

And that’s it for a while. Your only job for the first 6-8 weeks is keeping the weeds at bay. I went and purchased a hoe for this, and it took about 30 minutes a week to do my 18m² bed last year. Just rub the weeds with the hoe when they’re young, and they won’t get a chance to grow.

If you have any questions about your garlic crop, please drop them in the comments below. It’s such an easy crop to grow, and no matter what variety you’re growing, I’d love to see you succeed.