Extension Educator, Horticulture
I suspect no other legal herb has had as many faithful followers. Throughout history garlic has been reported to have magical, mystical, and medicinal properties. Garlic has been prescribed medicinally since pre-biblical times. And even today there is great interest in the pungent properties of garlic.
Although garlic is easy to grow it does take a little forethought for an abundant crop next summer. Mid-September through mid-October is garlic planting time. Garlic needs to be planted at least six weeks before the soil freezes. In fall when it's cool and day length is short, garlic forms roots and begins sprouting. Garlic actually needs a cold period for proper shoot and bulb development.
In spring, leaf growth resumes. In June, as days become warmer and day lengths are long, leaf growth ceases and bulb formation begins. Spring planting of garlic is fine, but it will not produce the large bulbs as with fall planting. In spring cloves could be planted thickly in a row then harvested and eaten in the same manner as green onions.
Garlic grows best in full sun in well-drained loam soils that are fertile and high in organic matter. Raised beds may be needed in poorly drained areas. Apply 3 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet at planting time or use organic fertilizers such as blood meal or soybean meal. Also incorporate compost or other organic matter. Spade or till amendments into the soil.
Once soil is prepared, separate individual cloves from the main garlic bulb and plant cloves 3-5 inches apart with points up and cover to a depth of 1-2 inches. Allow 15 to 18 inches between rows or plant 5 inches apart in all directions if using raised beds. Do not divide the bulb into cloves until immediately before planting. Generally the larger the clove at planting time equals a larger sized bulb at harvest.
Mulch with 4-6 inches of seed-free straw after planting to moderate soil temperatures in winter and early spring, and to control weeds. If properly planted, cold temperatures will not hurt garlic.
Garlic bulbs should be dug when the tops start to yellow, usually in July. Do not wait until all leaves are brown. Harvest when about five green leaves remain.
Place bulbs on screen trays to dry in a cool, well-ventilated and dark place. Bulbs may be braided or bunched with twine and hung to complete drying. Mature bulbs will generally keep for months if stored in cool, dry and dark area. The beauty of planting your own garlic is it will reward you tenfold with plenty of garlic to share.
The many flavorful varieties of garlic are fun to try. Varieties fall into two main types: hardnecks and softnecks. Hardnecks as their name implies form a hard central scape with small bulbils at the ends. In summer tops of scapes are often harvested for eating similarly to green onions. Hardnecks are known for their robust flavor. Softnecks do not form a central hard scape and are commonly the ones found in grocery stores. They are known for their long keeping qualities of up to one year.
Elephant garlic is not true garlic, but a type of leek that forms a pungent bulb that tastes similar and resembles a garlic bulb.
A few good varieties for Illinois include hardneck types: Spanish Roja, Carpathian, Georgian Crystal, Music, Metechi, and Persian Star. Softnecks include Inchelium Red, Idaho Silverskin, and Persian Star. Garlic flavors are enhanced during storage. Check out farmers markets, local garden centers and internet specialty companies for garlic to plant. Once you start a tradition of growing garlic each year, be sure to save the best and the biggest bulbs to replant.