How to Grow Garlic in Iowa

Jocelyn grows up to 12,000 heads of garlic each year.

The first garlic I saw growing in a garden was at an Iowa City Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. We were touring the farm in March, when the transplants were still in the greenhouse and the only visible green in the garden was a lone bed of skinny, spiky-leaved vegetation that brought to mind mutant onions. We asked the farmer about this row of early spring growth. “Oh, that’s our garlic,” she said.

Oh, of course. “Garlic! We want to grow garlic!” we said.

“Homegrown garlic is the best!” the farmer told us. “Put some in when planting time rolls around this fall!”

What? Fall? No homegrown garlic for an entire year? We were devastated. But we regrouped, and when fall arrived we celebrated by putting a couple hundred garlic seed cloves into the ground. The harvest was worth the wait, the garlic was the best we ever ate, and we’ve been growing garlic ever since.

We’re up to 12,000 heads a year now, which we still put into the ground by hand. Garlic planting always feels like a party to me. Friends and family come out to the farm, and for a week we put clove after clove into the ground until suddenly we’re done. Then we pretty much leave the garlic patch alone (save spring feeding and scape cutting) until the next July, when we come back to harvest our bounty. That’s the great thing about garlic: It’s a no-muss, no-fuss plant. The hardest part is getting it in and out of the ground.

Late October is usually the best time to plant garlic in Iowa. Since Iowa can be rainy and wet in the fall, soil conditions can make planting tricky—one marshy year we didn’t get garlic in the ground until mid-November. Our goal is to get it in at least one week before the first hard freeze (mid-20s) but not much sooner than that. In our experience, we get bigger heads with this schedule. There are gardeners who would argue with me on this point, and some plant their garlic even a month in advance of the first hard freeze. Whatever your inclination (early fall or late fall), you really want your garlic seed cloves to have a chance to root down before the soil freezes up around them.

More important than the exact timing of planting is the site of planting. You want to put your garlic in a sunny site with fertile, well-drained soil. You absolutely do not want your garlic sitting in a puddle at any point during the winter or early spring—soggy garlic will rot rather than grow. We plant our garlic into raised beds. You can space the cloves 3 to 6 inches apart in rows that are 12 to 24 inches apart. Garlic cloves that have more room tend to grow into bigger heads, so if you have the space, give it to them. Be sure to plant the cloves 2 inches deep and pointy end up.

Once you’ve closed the soil around your garlic, put down five sheets of newspaper followed by several inches of straw mulch (you may need to wet the paper to keep it in place until you get the straw down on top of it). The five sheets of newspaper will keep weed seeds from germinating, which will greatly cut down on your weed population in the spring. The straw is to insulate and protect the cloves over the winter. In the early spring (early March), check under your straw every few days until you see the first sign of green. At that point, brush the straw off your garlic sprouts so they can see the sun.

Garlic is a heavy feeder, which means you’ll want to plant it in a good loam enriched with plenty of organic matter or compost. If you go the fertilizer route, look for a vegetable fertilizer that contains a wide range of micronutrients as well as the usual NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium). Since we’re organic gardeners who happen to have worms (I mean, raise worms), we incorporate worm castings into our garlic plot. Organic fish emulsion is also a good route to go. Whatever nutrient source you choose, feed your garlic plot in the fall before planting and then again in the spring once you’ve pulled up your mulch.

There are two basic types of garlic: hardneck and softneck. The garlic sold at grocery stores is primarily softneck, which is commonly grown in California or overseas. Softnecks are a warmer weather garlic and not quite as flavorful as hardneck garlic. Hardneck garlic is what you’ll often find in Iowa gardens. Hardneck tolerates cooler weather better and thus can be grown here with ease. There are many varieties of hardneck, including heirloom varieties, with a whole range of flavor from mild to downright spicy.

German Extra Hardy is an easy-to-grow variety with creamy white bulbs with streaks of rosy purple. It’s just beautiful and tastes everything that garlic should taste. It’s also fairly popular among growers here in Southeast Iowa, so it’s pretty easy to find seed. Another popular variety is Music, which is fairly similar in taste and appearance but tends to have fewer and larger cloves. Both are reliable producers, which is especially nice if you’re just beginning.

An interesting fact about garlic is that it adapts to the environment in which it is grown. That means that a great place for you to buy seed garlic is from a producer somewhere close to home. Grocery stores are not great sources for garlic seed, since the garlic in stores is usually sprayed with a chemical to keep it from sprouting. Farmers’ markets are my choice for sourcing garlic seed. At markets you can often find vendors who grow and eat several different varieties, so you can learn about the different varieties from a person who has firsthand experience with them. We got turned on to Spanish Roja (a very strong, hot, and spicy variety) through a long conversation with a market grower.

In May and June, garlic sends up its scape, which is a curly stem that ends in a seed pod. This scape diverts energy from the root (bulb), and so you want to cut off the scapes to get the best bulbs. They’re easy to harvest—just clip them off at the base of the stem. Garlic scapes are edible and make great additions to sautés, soups, and sauces.

It’s time to harvest the garlic bulbs themselves when the foliage starts to turn brown. In Iowa, this is usually in July. After digging up the bulbs, let them cure (dry) for several days in a warm, dark, well-ventilated room. Don’t try to trim the roots or knock the soil off until the bulbs are dry. Once they are dry, store them at 32 to 40 degrees F. A fridge or root cellar is ideal. When stored correctly garlic can keep through the entire winter and into the next spring, just in time to see your new sprouts pop up.

We’ve grown a lot of garlic in the several years since our visit to that Iowa City CSA. It’s one of our favorite plants to grow. And if you’re entertaining the idea of growing garlic in your own garden, I’ll say to you what the CSA farmer said to me: Homegrown garlic is the best. Go for it! And here’s some good news—it’s October. So if you get going now, you won’t have to wait a whole extra year to plant. Your garden awaits!

Jocelyn Engman is the proprietor of Pickle Creek Herbs, makers of herb-infused olive oils, vinegars, soaps, and more.