Planting Garlic In The Fall: 3 Important Steps
In most of the United States, garlic is usually planted in the fall. This allows the garlic to grow a significant number of roots over winter, giving the plants a head start first thing in spring. Even in warm southern regions where winters are mild, fall planting is important because most of the top growth needs to happen before the extreme heat of late spring arrives.
In colder northern regions planting before winter also ensures that the garlic is exposed to the cold temperatures that many types of garlic require and that it experiences a dormant period before spring.
Spring planted cloves of hardneck varieties often do not form a bulb at all and if they do, they are usually much smaller than the fall planted cloves (see our How To Plant Garlic in Spring article for more info).
Only in regions like California, can garlic be easily planted in late winter or very early spring. This is possible because of their mild winter temperatures and moderate summer temperatures that don't get overly hot, allowing for a very long growing season. Softnecks are generally planted which do not require cold exposure to form bulbs.
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Three Important Steps:
(1) Planting Date
The best time to plant garlic in the fall will depend on your location and climate. The goal is to have the cloves develop as much root growth as possible before winter, while minimizing any top growth and ending up with significant green tops being exposed.
This is especially important for northern locations where winter temperatures stay well below freezing and exposed leaves can burn under the extreme conditions. This means that the date of planting can range from mid-September to as late as the end of November depending on where you live and how long you want your cloves to grow roots before winter.
Generally speaking, it is recommended that garlic in Canada be planted around October 15th every year. This conventional wisdom, however, is a very broad recommendation and is not always ideal for every location.
In the most extreme cold regions of the US that are zones 2 or 3, planting can start as early as September 15 and go as late as the end of October. In most other regions, planting between October 15th and October 30th is ideal, however, can be done well into November if necessary. In the warmest, most southern regions such as the gulf coast states, planting is ideally done from late October until the end of November.
In all locations, garlic can still be planted outside these dates, however, in places with cold winters, you want to plant at least a 4 to 6 weeks before the ground freezes. Also, if you plant your garlic early in the season and end up with some green top growth above the soil line going into winter, the first leaves may die back if temperatures drop below 10⁰F (-12⁰C). Although this is not ideal, the cloves will usually re-grow new leaves in spring.
(2) Planting Depth
Generally, garlic planting depth ranges anywhere from 1" to 3" inches deep. How deep you should plant your garlic cloves will depend on a couple of factors.
The first thing to consider is the type of soil you have. On poorly drained soils like clay, or regions that generally receive very high amounts of rain, planting deeper than 1" or 2" can cause the garlic to decay over winter, in early spring or during wet periods. In sandy or very well-drained soil, planting less than 2" or 3" can lead to drought stress during hot or dry periods.
On occasion, some growers plant deeper than 3", however, this only works in dry sandy soils that are very fluffy with organic matter. Generally, any deeper than 3" is considered excessive and will force the garlic plants to use valuable energy when emerging from the soil which can limit the size of the harvested bulbs come fall.
The second factor to consider is the climate of the area. The deeper a garlic clove is planted, the more winter protection it has. In regions where winter conditions are mild or in areas with very high snowfall, planting depth is less of a concern. For locations that have a lot of freezing/thawing cycles, including most of the Northern States, planting on the deeper side can help protect the cloves over the winter. At a depth of 2" garlic is usually deep enough to survive the winter. However, 1" can easily have winter kill on the more exposed areas without a thick straw mulch cover.
(3) Winter Protection
In the colder regions of the United States, covering the garlic with a mulch such as straw, hay or leaves is highly recommended to protect the bulbs over winter. In regions with moderate to mild winters, mulching is not essential, however, it can still help protect the garlic from freeze/thaw cycles and excess winds, as well as keep the soil warmer to allow the roots to continue growing into early winter.
Mulching should be delayed until late fall (usually November or December) when the weather has turned colder, but should be completed before the tops emerge from the ground. This delay will help prevent the bulbs from rotting under warm and wet soil conditions. In very wet regions where the winters are mild, mulching is not generally recommended (especially on clay soils).
In spring the mulch covering can be removed as soon as temperatures begin to increase to help warm and dry the soil or it can be left alone to conserve moisture and keep the bulbs cool over the growing season. Generally, the coldest locations benefit the most from spring mulch removal and the warmest locations benefit the most from leaving mulch on for the entire growing season.
About the Author: John Cote and operates John Boy Farms with his family who have been farming the same land for over 140 years. As an agronomist and experienced farmer, he helps others learn how to grow garlic successfully. He has written many articles and is the author of The Master Guide to Growing Big Garlic.
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