Planting garlic in the spring: How to grow big bulbs from spring-planted garlic

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Most gardeners plant garlic in the autumn. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1) Garlic cloves need a cold period to trigger bulb development and 2) Fall planting also gives the cloves time to set roots before winter. When the weather warms in spring the plants can then shoot out of the ground and start putting on fresh growth. That said, if you missed the fall planting window, it is still possible to plant and enjoy a good harvest from spring planted garlic. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about planting garlic in the spring.

planting garlic in the springplanting garlic in the spring

Can you plant garlic in the spring? Yes! But give the bulbs a cold treatment, plant early, and provide consistent moisture and rich soil.

Types of garlic

There are hundreds of varieties of garlic to grow, but two main types: hardneck and softneck. Jessica writes about them in this detailed article, but here are the basic differences:

Hardneck garlic: I grow hardneck garlic in my Northern garden as it’s very cold tolerant. The plants produce a central stem, called a scape which gardeners typically snap off in early summer in hopes of promoting large bulbs. The scapes are edible and we love to make pesto from our bounty of scapes. The bulbs of hardneck garlic have one row of cloves that circles the main stem. There are fewer cloves per bulb than those produced by softneck varieties, but the cloves of hardneck garlic are usually much larger.

Softneck garlic: Softneck garlic is often grown in southern regions as most varieties aren’t as cold hardy as hardneck garlics. Softneck garlic doesn’t have a stiff central stalk and can be braided for convenient storage. They also produce a larger number of cloves per bulb with clove size ranging from small to large. Softneck bulbs are known for their long storage life and properly stored bulbs can last six to nine months.

hardneck garlichardneck garlic

Hardneck garlic is the type most often grown in cold climates like mine. The plants produce large cloves that have a robust garlic flavour.

Can I plant garlic in the spring?

Yes, you can plant garlic in the spring. You can grow it for a crop of green garlic or you can grow it to produce bulbs. Green garlic, also called spring garlic, is the garlic equivalent of scallions. The plants form slender stalks with bright green leaves and small bulbs. You can eat the whole plant with the most tender leaves, stalks and bulbs ideal for salads, sautés, pastas, and other dishes that benefit from a garlicky kick. The tougher leaves can be turned into pesto or used to add flavour to oil before cooking. To plant green garlic, tuck garlic cloves in the garden in early spring spacing them closely, about two to three inches apart. Start harvesting when the plants are twelve to eighteen inches tall. Learn more about green garlic here

The main reason gardeners grow garlic, however, is for bulbs. And the secret to growing good-sized bulbs from spring-planted garlic is getting the cloves in the ground as early as possible and then providing ideal growing conditions. I’ll cover all that below, but it’s important to note that your spring-planted garlic bulbs will likely be a bit smaller than those planted in the autumn. It’s nothing you’ve done wrong, but fall-planted garlic has a head start on the growing season. Another difference between spring and fall-planted garlic is that the harvest season shifts. Fall-planted garlic is dug in early to mid summer, depending on your region. Spring-planted garlic needs a couple of extra weeks to catch up and is harvested in mid to late summer.

Young garlic plants in springYoung garlic plants in spring

The shoots of this spring-planted garlic bed have emerged around a month after planting.

Spring-planted garlic needs a cold treatment

Hardneck garlic requires a cold period, called vernalization, to divide and form into bulbs. When you plant garlic in the fall, Mother Nature takes care of vernalization over the winter. However, garlic planted in the spring may not receive enough exposure to cold temperatures for this process to happen. If vernalization doesn’t occur, the cloves often form rounds not bulbs. A round is a plant with a single large garlic clove instead of a bulb with multiple cloves. You can still eat garlic rounds, but the overall harvest is diminished. Rounds may also be re-planted to grow into bulbs the following season. The good news is that you can vernalize garlic before spring planting to promote bulb development. 

How to vernalize garlic

To vernalize hardneck garlic, you’ll need to expose the seed garlic to a cold period before planting. There are two main ways to do this:

  1. Place the planting stock in a refrigerator for four to eight weeks. Put the cloves in a plastic baggie. Before adding the garlic, poke some holes in the baggie to allow for ventilation. Or, leave the top of the bag slightly open. Check the garlic weekly to ensure there isn’t a build up of moisture or mold forming. If you see sprouting or roots forming, plant the cloves right away. 
  2. Plant as early as possible. If there is a thaw in late winter or very early spring, get out and plant your garlic. This planting window may allow Mother Nature time to vernalize the garlic cloves for you. 

Softneck garlic can also benefit from a vernalization period and should be placed in the fridge for two to three weeks before planting. Or, plant the cloves in the garden early in the season.

Where to buy garlic for spring planting

Garlic seed (which is just bulbs or cloves intended for planting) is easy to source in the fall. In spring, it can be a bit tricker to find, especially if you’re looking for specific varieties. It can be ordered online or bought at a local garden centre. Many nurseries bring in softneck garlic varieties in spring. Most need less vernalization than hardneck varieties and produce a bulb more reliably from spring planting. However you source your spring garlic, buy it as early as possible so that you have time to give the cloves a cold treatment.

garden display at a garden centregarden display at a garden centre

Look for planting garlic in garden centres or order online.

When to plant garlic in the spring

Want big garlic bulbs? Plant the cloves in your garden as soon as the ground is workable. It may seem very early to be planting a crop outdoors, but remember that garlic is cold hardy and requires a chilling period. In the past, I’ve taken advantage of a February or March thaw to tuck more cloves in my garden. That way the garlic has four to six weeks (or longer!) of cold which should be enough to initiate bulb formation.

A step-by-step guide to planting

Planting garlic is easy! It’s also a low maintenance crop that is bothered by few pests and diseases. Even the deer that roam my property rarely bother my garlic beds. Here’s how to plant garlic in the spring:

1 – Find the ideal site for growing garlic. This is especially important for spring-planted garlic because you want the plants to grow as quickly as possible once the weather warms. Garlic grows best in a garden that receives at least eight hours of sun each day. I’ve found growing my garlic crop in raised beds has resulted in healthier plants and larger bulbs.

2 – Prep the soil. Garlic prefers a soil rich in nitrogen. I dig in aged manure or compost before planting as well as an organic granular fertilizer. If you know you’re going to be planting garlic in the spring, for bulbs or green garlic, prep the site in fall if possible. That will save you time when you get a weather window to plant. 

3 – Plant the cloves. Plant the cloves two to three inches deep and six inches apart. I plant in a grid formation in my raised beds to maximize growing space.

4 – Mulch the bed. Once the cloves have been planted, top the bed with two to three inches of shredded leaves or straw. 

5 – Water deeply. Give the garlic bed a deep watering to ensure the newly planted cloves have all the moisture they need to start growing roots.

Garlic cloves should be planted six inches apart and two to three inches deep. Planting in a grid formation maximizes use of the growing space.

Garlic cloves should be planted six inches apart and two to three inches deep. Planting in a grid formation maximizes use of the growing space.

Planting garlic in the spring in containers

Garlic can also be spring planted in containers, pots, and planters. The diameter of the container depends on how much garlic you wish to grow, but it should be at least 8 inches deep. Keep in mind that larger pots not only hold more garlic plants but they also have a larger soil volume. That means you won’t have to water a large pot as much as you would a smaller container. Also be sure your chosen pot has drainage holes. 

To grow garlic in pots, use a growing medium that is three quarters high quality potting mix and one-quarter compost. Also add a fertilizer like a granular fish or all-purpose vegetable garden fertilizer. Space the cloves two to three inches deep and three to four inches apart.

Put the container on a deck or patio where it receives plenty of direct sun. Water regularly and fertilize every two to three weeks with a liquid organic fertilizer. Read more about growing garlic in pots in this detailed article from Jessica. 

garlic scapesgarlic scapes

Clip or snap garlic scapes from the plants once they’ve curled into a double loop. Use them in your cooking or make pesto from the flavorful scapes.

Caring for spring-planted garlic

Garlic is a fairly low maintenance crop but you’ll want to put a bit of extra TLC in your spring-planted patch to encourage the largest possible bulbs. Here’s what I do for my spring garlic crop:

  • Provide consistent moisture. If the weather is hot and dry grab your watering wand and irrigate the garlic bed every seven to ten days. Water-stressed plants won’t produce big bulbs.
  • Pull weeds. Don’t let grassy or broad-leaved weeds compete with your garlic for moisture and nutrients. Pull weeds as they appear. If you mulched the bed after planting weeds shouldn’t be much of an issue.
  • Feed regularly  Garlic is a heavy feeder and appreciates a rich organic soil. Feed the soil with compost in spring as well as a nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer like fish fertilizer or alfalfa meal. This promotes healthy leaf growth which in turn helps the plants form large bulbs. Further applications of liquid organic fertilizer every two to three weeks ensures a consistent feed.
  • Remove scapes. The scapes of hardneck garlic emerge in early summer. Once they’ve looped around twice, clip them off using garden snips or hand pruners. Use them to make pesto, or as a garlic clove substitute in your favorite recipes.

When to harvest spring-planted garlic

Garlic is ready to dig when the leaves on the bottom half of the plants have turned brown. As noted above, spring-planted garlic requires a couple of extra weeks in the garden for the bulbs to size up. Keep an eye on the leaves and when the bottom three or four leaves have turned brown and dried up, use a garden fork to gently lift the bulbs from the soil. Get more info and tips on garlic harvesting and curing in this article by Tara.

Learn more about growing garlic in the popular book, The Complete Guide to Garlic. You may also want to check out these related articles:

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