I am a big fan of growing garlic in Colorado. There are several reasons why. But first, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
Besides the love of sitting together with others as we prepare the garlic for storage, I also love curly garlic scapes.
I also love growing garlic in Colorado because it is so easy! And like other plants, the process is cyclical, but with garlic, I am touching some part of the process all year long. I plant in the fall, tend it in the winter and spring, harvest in midsummer, cure/store in late summer and plant again just a little while later in the fall. And best of all, during this time I am using garlic in all its forms: spring garlic, garlic scapes and full grown garlic. Yum!
Like most things homegrown, garlic from the garden tastes better. The chefs in my family find homegrown to be juicier and more robust in flavor.
Below are a few things I’ve learned about growing garlic in Colorado.
Types of Garlic
There are three types of garlic: hardneck, softneck and elephant.
Hardneck: I prefer hardneck garlic as it puts out scapes that are harvested in June before the bulb is harvested in July. If you don’t know about scapes then you are in for a new treat. They are a true delicacy. In a nutshell, hardneck garlic sends up a curly flowering stalk. Cut from the plant, the scape can be used in a variety of ways, including in a saute or made into a pesto. If I don’t remove the scape, the scape stalk will get woody AND the bulb below the ground won’t grow as big. Go ahead. Remove and enjoy them! They are a tasty treat.
Out of the hardneck types, I prefer German Extra Hardy (also called German Stiffneck) for its robust but not overpowering flavor. It also does well in our cold climate. Generally, all hardnecks will do well here. Once harvested and cured, hardneck garlic can be stored in a cool, dry, dark place for 4-6 months. If you have a very cool basement (40-50 degrees) it will store on the longer side. My basement is a finished warm basement. Most winters, garlic will store there for about 4 months. If I happen to still have garlic past the 4 month mark, I will peel it and put it in the freezer. This keeps it from going to waste.
Softneck: This type is better for longer term storage (8-10 months). As of this date, I don’t grow softneck. But this is not because I don’t want to. I just don’t have enough room for more than my favorite variety. For more information on the types of softneck that grow well in Colorado go to our extension site: http://www.colostate.edu/Dept/CoopExt/4dmg/VegFruit/garlic.htm
Elephant: This is a larger garlic and it is milder. We like strong garlic, so it isn’t a variety I would plant (for this reason and lack of space). If you don’t like garlic because it is too strong, you may want to try growing this variety. Some say it tastes more like an onion.
Where To Buy Your Garlic Bulbs
Most independent garden centers will have garlic bulbs for sale in September. Your selection there will be very limited. But that is ok. By mid September it is most likely too late to order online. I’m quite certain that what they sell at the independent garden centers will do well if you are growing garlic in Colorado. You may want to ask them what variety is being sold so that you know whether you’ll have scapes or not and how long it might store once it is harvested. This past September weekend I was at the garden center. I asked what variety they were selling. They didn’t know! If this happens to you and you have not ordered it online, just buy some anyway and stick it in the ground.
I do prefer to buy my garlic online because there is a better selection of more varieties and I am guaranteed to be able to find my favorite (German hardneck, as mentioned above). Garlic can sell out quickly at online sources so I try to pre-order mine in June or July. The provider won’t send it until September.
Although some have reported great success, I don’t recommend growing garlic you have purchased in a grocery store. Why? You don’t know if it is a variety that will do well here in our colder climate. And it might be treated with a spray to inhibit growth. I love garlic so much that I wouldn’t want to risk the limited space I have to using a bulb that might not do well. This said, gardening is about taking risks so I say go for it if all you have available is grocery store garlic!
I am currently working to build my own supply by saving the largest and most robust of my bulbs for seed. Last fall I had to buy all my garlic to plant. This fall, 1/4 of what I plant will be from bulbs I saved. By next fall about 1/2 of what I plant will be my own seed and seed I will buy, and so on. I think in about 3-4 years. 100% of what I plant will be from my own garlic supply.
When To Plant Garlic
Growing garlic in Colorado requires determining a decent planting date. I live on the Front Range. I will plant mid-October. Most directions will tell you to plant 4-5 weeks before the first frost date. My first frost date is generally October 15. This translates to planting in mid-September. But I think that is too early. Like other gardeners, I calculate the planting date by calculating back from when the ground would first be frozen rather than the frost date above the ground. In my area of Colorado, the ground is typically frozen by Thanksgiving. Thus, I plant 4-5 weeks before Thanksgiving.
Due to Colorado’s varying terrain, we have several growing zones in Colorado. Obviously if you are in a different zone than mine (I’m in zone 5b) then adjust accordingly. If you are high up, you may need to plant garlic in early September!
Last year was a busy time for me at my day job so I didn’t get it in the ground until the end of October. It was a mild fall so all was fine. All in all, don’t overthink the timing too much. Simply plant your garlic sometime between September 15 and October 20 (if you are on the Front Range) and it will most likely do well.
All this said, it is possible to grow garlic starting in early spring. Here in Colorado your bulbs might not get that big with a spring planting. But who cares?! While you probably won’t have the size bulbs that will produce good planting cloves, they will still be tasty in your cooking.
Where to Plant Garlic
Growing garlic in Colorado requires choosing a good spot. Obviously where to plant depends on how much garlic you want. I will always want more garlic than space allows! Last year I planted a pound of German Extra Hardy in my suburban backyard. Depending on the variety, a pound is about 30-40 cloves. Garlic comes in bulb. German Extra Hardy bulb yields 4-6 cloves per bulb. Other varieties will have more, so plan accordingly. With the variety I plant and the way in which I plant, I need a space that is about 6×10. You may not want to devote as much space as I do, or maybe you have the space to devote more!
Break the bulb apart and plant the small cloves. I always have too many cloves for the space I have. I plant a few rows very close together (3 inches apart). For more information on how to plant, see below. In the spring (mid April through mid May), I harvest early from these tightly spaced rows by plucking every other plant out of the ground to use as spring garlic. Spring garlic is also called green garlic, early garlic or young garlic. Spring garlic looks like a large green onion. It is mild in flavor, adding a nice touch to dishes.
Choose a sunny location. Garlic likes full sun (defined: at least 6 hours a day). Parts of my Colorado backyard garden is rather shady. The place I can dedicate to garlic only gets about 5 hours of sun a day. This isn’t ideal. But gardening isn’t always ideal! My finished bulbs range in mid to full size. If I had more sun, I’d have larger bulbs. Sure I would love to have all my bulbs be large. But, I will enjoy the results that my spot of the earth provides.
Most likely you will need to amend the soil with some good compost before you plant your garlic. Growing garlic in Colorado works well because garlic doesn’t like soggy feet. Since Colorado is a dry climate this helps. But, if it rains a lot (like it did in 2015), and the garlic is planted in hard clay, the plants may have wet feet anyway. Adding compost will help the soil to drain better. It will also add some nitrogen to the soil as well. Garlic does like nitrogen. Some growers will add fertilizer to the area as well. I don’t bother doing that.
Garlic shouldn’t be planted in the same spot year to year. The crop should be rotated.
How To Plant
Split the bulbs into cloves, leaving the papery covering on each clove intact. Use only the cloves that are firm. If any are soft, throw those out. I choose the largest cloves to grow into full sized bulbs. The smallest cloves I plant closer together for spring garlic (see above).
Depth: Plant the clove with the tip facing up. Plant the clove 2 inches below the top of the soil. When you cover with soil be sure the bulb stays upright and doesn’t get knocked on its side.
Spacing: For the cloves to grow into the largest bulbs possible, space them 6 inches apart in rows 12 inches apart. As I stated above, I choose to plant a few rows of garlic cloves closer together than this. These I harvest in the spring. This is called spring garlic. We love spring garlic for our cooking AND I don’t have enough room to grow all my garlic to full size.
Protect: After I plant and mark my rows, I’ll cover that area with 3-6 inches of weed free straw. Don’t use hay! Hay has too many seeds that result in weeds. Here is a photo of my garlic once it started popping up in mid March. These cloves were planted 6 inches a part.
Here are photos of the garlic I planted closer together (for spring garlic), again in mid March.
Tending To Growing Garlic
After you plant your garlic in October, give it some water. Throughout the late fall and into winter I just leave it alone! But if it is an ultra-dry winter I might go out and give it a tad of water. Don’t worry too much about your garlic during this time. There are wonderful things going on in that frozen ground.
Depending on where you are in Colorado and what the weather is like, you may begin to see your garlic growing green tops even after you initially plant it. Don’t worry. Those will die back during the winter and new growth will come again in the spring. On the Front Range, you may see the new growth as early as late February, but more often in March. Begin to water more regularly at this time. Garlic does like some moisture during its growing season, but as stated above, garlic doesn’t like wet soggy feet.
This said, in May 2015 I thought I’d have to build an ark in my backyard. The rain in 2015 was crazy! The rain was starting to make me grumpy because I was sure underneath all that lush green were soggy garlic bulbs!
But I’m glad to say that my garlic, with its uber wet feet, thrived. They didn’t rot. It was quite the miracle. I was glad I had amended the soil back when I planted it so that there wasn’t as much clay to hold all that water in. I do think soil amendment back in the fall helped. I just think soil amendment is important all around!
Growing garlic in Colorado is fun because it grows tall and looks lovely in the garden. It will be anywhere between 3 and 4 feet tall. Of course, once the green leaves start to die back it isn’t as pretty to the eye, but this means you are nearing harvest!
About mid-June or so, if you planted hardneck garlic, the plants will send up scapes (see above and below). Once the scapes are curly, cut them off and use in cooking. Garlic scapes are a delicacy. Also, cutting them off will help the bulb grow bigger. This is not the case with onions. Cutting off onion flowers does not help the bulb grow bigger.
Once you cut off the scapes, diminish the water you give to garlic from here on out. Still water on occasion, but not like you were earlier in the growing season.
Somewhere around mid to late July your garlic leaves will begin to turn brown. It is a tad difficult when to discern the time to harvest garlic. If you harvest it too late, the cloves will begin to separate themselves from each other and the bulb will not store as long. Harvesting too early will also diminish the self-life.
Generally speaking, you can harvest your garlic when you see several (3-4) of its most bottom leaves are brown and several of its top leaves (5-6) are still green. It is easy to overthink this. If you happen to harvest too late or too early so be it! Remember, we gardeners learn by doing.
Choose a day to harvest when the ground is dry. In July 2015 we had a lot of rain. It was hard to choose a day! Because the ground was soggy I had to wait to harvest and I was certain I harvested too late and would need to freeze my garlic for longer term storage. But all was well.
Don’t pull your garlic up by grabbing the stalk and yanking it. Place a spade alongside, lifting the bulb out from below. Be careful not to pierce or cut the bulb as you place the spade in the dirt. Yes, I did this to a few of my bulbs this past July. But it didn’t matter because we quickly used them in the kitchen.
After you remove the bulb from the dirt, gently remove some (but not all) of the dirt. If you work to remove all the dirt you may damage the bulb. It is best to cure it first and once the bulb is harder you can rub off the rest of the dirt. Place your garlic out on a table to dry off a bit outside. If it is in the sun, don’t leave it in the sun for longer than a day. Once it is a tad more dry you can shake a bit more of the dirt off but again, be careful not to damage the bulb.
Here is a picture of my garlic sitting out right after I pulled the bulbs out of the ground. I left it here for about 4 hours.
It will need to cure in place for 2 weeks or more. But before I cured it I decided be a Garlic Prom Queen for a few minutes.
Allow it cure in a cool, shady and dry spot. During the curing period it cannot get wet. I don’t have a safe enough place outside (where it wouldn’t get wet). The best spot is on a table in my basement. Or, if I have people living in my basement which I do on occasion, I put it on my dining room table like I did in 2015. We never use the dining room in the summer. The dining room becomes the curing, canning, food dehydrator room in the summer!
You will know the garlic is cured by the look of the stalk. It will be all dried out. If you cut off the stalk and see any fresh green, you should wait. Cure the rest of the bulbs for a few more days.
Once the garlic has cured for 2-3 weeks, you can now brush off the rest of the dirt, trim the roots and cut off the stalk. This is a fun family activity. I love friends and family in the garden.
Store your garlic bulbs in a mesh or paper bag in a cool dry place for 4-6 months (hardneck) or 5-8 months (softneck). As mentioned above, the ideal temp is 50 or so degrees. Most basements are warmer than that so it won’t store on the long side of the scale. Don’t store your garlic in the refrigerator.
If, during the storage period, you notice your garlic is starting to show signs of drying out too much, you can break apart the cloves, remove the papery skin, toss in a tad of olive oil and store a Ziplock bag in the freezer to save for an even longer term.
Side note: If you want to store your garlic as a braid, this is possible with softneck garlic. Hardneck is really difficult to braid (due to its thicker/harder stalk).
To End This Post
All this looks like A LOT of work! But honestly, garlic is easy to grow. And when you finally get it into your kitchen you won’t regret any of the effort.
I have given you a lot of information but I would encourage you to not overthink it. Who cares if it is planted 4 inches apart instead of 6 or 8?! It will still grow. And if it gets watered too much (or too little) something good will probably still happen. And if what you have to plant is garlic from the grocery store, try it! Don’t let what I say above deter you from doing it differently. Gardening is always about experimenting.
I find growing Garlic in Colorado to be easy. In fact, out of everything I grow, garlic is the easiest. I love homegrown garlic. I am grateful for what we can get in our grocery stores. But if I’m able to plant even a small amount, I will do so each year. The process from beginning to end is a very satisfying human endeavor, given to some of us to do by the grace of God.
If you have garlic growing tips, feel free to share in the comments below.