Garlic isn’t the easiest thing to grow and it is far from the fastest. These two factors have many container gardeners giving up on growing garlic before ever trying it.
Yes, it’s true that garlic takes time to grow—about as much time as a human fetus, in fact. And you do need to work a little harder to be successful. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t grow garlic in pots.
In this article, we’ll guide you to garlic growing success in just 9 simple steps. Plus, we’ll tell you about the different types of garlic available and which is best for your climate.
Can You Plant Grocery Store Garlic?
We’ve all had garlic try to sprout on us in the produce bowl. This phenomenon has many people wondering if you can plant grocery store garlic.
The simplest answer here is yes, you can plant those garlic cloves you got from the grocery store. If you follow our steps below and live in a warm climate, you’ll likely even end up with a pretty good harvest from those cloves. But why limit yourself to the type of garlic you can readily find at the grocer already?
There are so many more great garlic varieties out there worth trying. While going through the trouble of growing garlic from seed is not recommended, most of these types are available in bulb form at your local nursery or through online retailers.
Types of Garlic to Plant in Pots
There are two types of true garlic: softneck and hardneck. Both come in many varieties with slightly different flavors and growing quirks. Both can be grown in pots, but which is best for you comes down to your climate.
Softneck garlic is the type most commonly sold in grocery stores. That’s because this variety grows well in warm climates where it can be harvested throughout the summer.
The two main varieties of softneck garlic are silverskin and artichoke.
If you live in a warm climate that averages above 45 degrees in the winter, this is the type of garlic you want to grow.
Hardneck garlic gets its name from the stiff stalk, or scape, that develops in the summer. This type of garlic prefers to grow in cooler climates that experience freezing temperatures over the winter.
Exposure to cold is key to getting hardneck garlic to grow. In cold climates, this means planting it in the fall for harvest the following year. In warm climates, you can trick hardneck varieties into growing by storing them in your crisper for about 8 weeks before planting them.
Because most grocers don’t sell this type of garlic, many people are unfamiliar with it. While it looks similar to softneck varieties, these types tend to have a more complex flavor and are easier to peel but have a shorter shelf life.
Elephant garlic isn’t actually garlic at all. It is more closely related to leeks and has a mild flavor compared to true garlic plants. That said, this crop has a similar growth pattern and can be planted and harvested using most of the same steps below. Just be sure to space the cloves out more as the garlic heads on this variety are much larger.
How To Grow Garlic in Containers
Once you know what type of garlic you want to grow, it’s time to get planting!
Total time needed: 30 minutes of prep and 6 months of waiting
Required tools: gardening gloves
- a container at least 8″ deep
- potting soil
- garlic cloves (seed)
Step 1: Start Early
Whether you are planting softneck or hardneck garlic, your best bet is to plant in them in the fall. Hardneck bulbs will need all winter plus the following spring and most of the summer to develop.
Softnecks will be ready earlier in the spring and can often be harvested into the following fall.
In either case, you’ll want to start planning your garlic container garden around the time your other veggies are being harvested.
Step 2: Pick the Right Container
Containers for garlic growing need to be at least 8 inches deep and have more than one drainage hole in the bottom. How big around the pot needs to be depends on how many cloves you want to plant. You can generally fit about 8 cloves per 10 inches of diameter.
The other important consideration is what the pot is made out of. Because this pot will be sitting outside through the winter, opt for a durable material such as plastic, glazed ceramic, or plasti-stone. Terracotta pots and other raw porous materials will absorb water and crack in freezing weather.
Step 3: Fill It with the Right Soil
One of the quickest ways to sabotage your garlic growing experiment is to use the wrong soil. Garlic requires quality well-draining soil. Dirt that holds excess water will cause the heads to rot, especially if your area gets a lot of precipitation in the winter.
My advice is to opt for the highest quality potting soil you can find—something like Wonder Soil—and mix it at a ratio of 3:1 with a quality compost blend. If you find the soil is staying too soggy, you can add a scoop of builder’s sand to increase drainage.
Step 4: Feed with the Right Fertilizer
Right before you plant your garlic, you’ll want to add some extra fertilizer to your soil. Garlic is a bulb plant, which means the key to getting healthy, super-sized heads, is to use a high phosphorus fertilizer.
Look for organic fertilizer products marketed specifically for bulb plants like daffodils, tulips, or hyacinths. Pellet-style, slow-release fertilizer works best. Add about 2 tablespoons for medium pots and mix well with the top few inches of soil.
Step 5: Plant Your Garlic Cloves
Whether you’re using store-bought garlic or a less common variety from the nursery, you’ll want to break the head apart into individual cloves. The largest cloves will perform the best, so plant those and save any little pieces for cooking.
Space the cloves about 3 to 4 inches apart and push them into the soil with the pointy end up. This space is important if you want your garlic to form large, full heads. The base of the clove (where the roots will sprout) needs to be about 3 inches deep.
The best time to plant garlic is around the first frost of fall. For more temperate climates, you can plant later into the winter as well.
Step 6: Mulch to Insulate
Once your garlic cloves have been planted, it’s time to insulate the soil.
In warmer climates, you may see some green growth from your garlic in containers throughout the winter. But in colder climates, planting garlic this early is all about forcing the cloves into a dormancy period that will supercharge their growth in the spring. Cold temperatures are key to forcing these garlic bulbs to go dormant, but you’ll need to protect your cloves from getting too cold.
Start by covering the top of the soil with a thick layer of straw or dead leaves. This should be enough to protect your garlic through fall. If you experience a very frigid winter, you’ll want to insulate the pot as well by wrapping it in bubble wrap or piling up leaves or straw around it.
Step 7: Place the Pot for Winter
In areas that don’t experience a harsh winter, place your pot in a sunny location and remember to water it frequently. You should see garlic sprouts within a couple of weeks.
For colder climates, find a sheltered area next to your house to overwinter your pot. Your garlic will not grow in the winter months so sunshine is not important. If you experience very cold periods, you may want to place your pot in a shed or unheated garage to protect your cloves.
Step 8: Water, Feed, and Relocate When Needed
While your cloves will not grow while dormant, they will still need some moisture to stay alive. Check the soil every few weeks in the winter to assure it is moist and water if not. For dry winters or pots sheltered out of the elements, you may need to water more frequently.
For actively growing plants in warmer climates, you’ll need to water much more often.
Once the weather begins to change in the spring, it’s time to move your pot out of hibernation and place it in a sunny location that gets at least 6 hours of sun per day. Remove the mulch layer on top and the insulating layers around the pot. Add another round of fertilizer and water well.
Step 9: Continue Care Until It’s Time to Harvest
Garlic is a hardy plant and will sprout early in the season. Continue to water as needed to keep the soil moist but not soggy.
For hardneck varieties, you’ll want to snip the scape (the curly flower stalk) that will develop in early summer. This will divert resources back to the bulb to grow larger cloves and an overall bigger head of garlic. Four to six weeks after the scapes appear, your garlic is ready to harvest.
For softneck varieties that don’t form garlic scapes, knowing when to harvest can be a little trickier. One of the easiest ways is to watch the leaves. Once half of the mature leaves have yellowed, the garlic bulb is ready to pick.
This trick of waiting for half the leaves to die also works with hardneck varieties if you forget to start your countdown after the scape forms. This usually happens around mid-summer. For softneck varieties, the leaves will begin to die back between mid-spring to mid-summer.
If you wait too long to harvest your garlic, the cloves will start to separate and the head won’t store as well. If you harvest too early, the bulbs will be small with a more concentrated garlicky flavor. So, timing is important.
How to Cure and Store Garlic
The trick to storing fresh garlic long-term is to dry it out first. You can do this pretty easily in your garage or cellar, or any cool, dry space.
Start by creating a drying rack. You can use an old screen or staple wire mesh to an old picture frame or wood pallet. Whatever you use, be sure plenty of air can get to your heads from above and below.
Set the drying rack on some cinder blocks or overturned buckets so that air can get beneath it. Then cut the tops off your harvested garlic and spread the heads out over the screen. Be sure there is some space between each bulb so they dry evenly.
Alternatively, you can leave the tops intact, braid the leaves, and use them to hang the garlic in the air.
Either way, after about 10 to 14 days, your homegrown garlic should be cured and ready for storage. You’ll know the garlic is cured when the outer paper is crispy and the center of the cut stem has hardened.
Store your cured garlic in a cool, dry, dark location. Placing them in a wire bowl in the pantry works well. Or, if your house tends to be on the hotter side, opt for the cellar or basement. Just be sure the heads get plenty of air so they don’t rot.
Try These Plants in Your Container Garden Next
Garlic can be a tricky plant to grow, whether in the ground or a pot. For some easier alternatives that just about anyone can grow on their porch or patio, we recommend these articles:
- Growing Carrots in Containers
- 9 Tips for Growing Prolific Cherry Tomatoes in Pots
- How to Grow Peppers in Pots
- The 10 Easiest Veggies to Grow in Pots
About the Author
Sara Seitz is a freelance writer and avid gardener brought up by generations of women with green thumbs. She loves the challenge of growing a variety of vegetables and incorporating them into her cooking. If Sara’s not on her computer, she’s out in the garden teaching her daughter the joys of playing in the dirt. More articles by Sara.