October is the best time to plant garlic pretty much everywhere in the United States, but you don't need a garden to grow garlic. The bulbs grow well when planted in wide, deep containers that are set in a nice sunny spot.
Choosing a Garlic Variety
There are tons of garlic varieties to choose from and they are divided into two basic categories: hardneck types, which have a hard central stock with a single layer of cloves around it, and softneck types, which have swirling layers of cloves and no defined neck. I prefer hardneck varieties because they produce a flower bud called a scape in late spring. Scapes have a delicious mild garlicky flavor and taste amazing in pesto. In theory, you could plant garlic purchased from the grocery store, but it is often treated to prevent it from sprouting. For the best results and a more interesting array of varieties, buy garlic that was grown locally at a farmer's market or purchase bulbs at a nursery.
Garlic has fairly shallow roots, but it is important to make sure they have plenty of room to stretch out in the soil. Choose a pot that is at least 18 inches deep and 12 inches wide. Half barrels and wooden crates work well, but you certainly do not need to buy a container for your garlic. The large black plastic containers that trees come in are a great choice, as are contractor buckets. Whatever container you use, make sure that it has drainage holes in the bottom. Place the container in a spot that gets at least 6 hours of bright, direct sunlight each day.
Use Good Potting Soil
Garlic is prone to fungal root diseases, so it is important that the soil you plant the cloves in drains well. Don't be tempted to put regular garden soil in the containers. It is too heavy and tends to get soggy over the winter. Instead use a high quality soil-less potting mix. These mixes typically contain a blend of coconut fiber or peat and compost, plus vermiculite or pearlite to help keep it light. I use a brand called Black Gold. Get the potting mix as damp as a wrung out sponge before placing it in the container. Fill the container to within about 2 inches of the rim.
Planting the Garlic
Break the garlic heads apart, being careful to keep the papery wrapper around each clove intact. Only plant the largest cloves (you can use the smaller ones to cook with).
Plant the garlic 2 inches in from the rim of the container, spacing the bulbs 5 inches apart in all directions. Use a piece of bamboo to make planting holes that are 3 inches deep. Plant one clove per hole, with the flat side down and the pointy end up. Backfill the hole with soil, making sure that the tip of the clove is about 1 inch below the surface. The garlic may sprout and then die back over the winter, but don't worry. It will re-sprout again in the spring.
Caring for the Garlic Over the Winter
In very cold areas, you can place straw over the surface of the soil during periods where temperatures stay below freezing for an extended period of time. However, be prepared to remove it when temperatures rise, as the straw tends to stay damp and it will rot the garlic cloves. Skip using straw if you have wet, mild winters. In dry climates, don't let the soil completely dry out. Keep it about as damp as a wrung out sponge.
Caring for the Garlic in Spring
In spring be sure to remove straw (if using it) as soon as temperatures rise above freezing. When the garlic begins to grow, fertilize it every 3 weeks with a dilute liquid organic fertilizer. Keep the soil consistently moist. Cut the scapes off just after they emerge to encourage the bulbs to grow larger. The bulbs will be ready for harvest in early summer when the bottom 1/3 of the leaves have yellowed.
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Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Vegetable Gardening will be published in January 2012.
(Image by Willi Galloway)