Growing Garlic in the California Home Garden

Growing Garlic in the California Home Garden

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Garlic may be grown less-often than many other vegetables in the California home garden because of its long growing season of about 5 to 8 months and its sensitivity to soil and environmental conditions, especially to overwatering and wet soils, which can result in rot or low yields after months of effort. Garlic doesn’t yield well when planted in spring in California warm-to-hot-summer areas, when planted into new or infertile soils, when the wrong subspecies is planted (see below), or when overwatered.

The moderate challenges with garlic may discourage some gardeners; however, when garlic is planted during the appropriate growing season and a few simple-but-important cultural needs are met, it can be easy to grow and among the most rewarding of garden vegetables, providing spiciness and flavor that is absent from many vegetables, a long-lasting yield from small spaces, storage for long periods to be enjoyed for many months (up to 10 months or longer with ideal storage conditions for some varieties), and with hundreds of unique varieties available to gardeners that normally can’t be purchased in markets.

Under adverse conditions or when its needs aren’t met, garlic plants may grow slowly or become stunted, bulb poorly, or become prone to pests and diseases. GardenZeus expert Darren Butler offers the following tips for growing garlic successfully in warm-summer, warm-winter California areas with mild frosts or no frosts:

Cultural needs and environmental conditions: Garlic needs full sun during cool-to-warm weather. It grows and yields best at daytime temperatures of about 50° to 75°F. It needs warmer temperatures within this range for bulbs to mature fully, and tolerates short periods with temperatures of up to 85°F or higher once established.

Garlic is a moderate feeder that prefers loose, well-drained soils that are high in organic matter at pH of about 5.8 to 6.8. It suffers in compacted, uncultivated, or infertile soils. It doesn’t compete well for soil nutrients with other plants, and should be planted without companions or with shallow-rooted, light feeders only. Avoid planting garlic repeatedly in the same soil, in soil where other alliums have been planted in the past 2 growing seasons, or in soils exhausted by heavy feeders. See Soil and Microclimate Tips for Softneck Garden Garlic and GardenZeus Alert: Beware of Heavy Feeders.

Planning and preparation: When selecting garlic varieties, be aware that garlic flavor (the unique taste of garlic) is distinct from heat or spiciness. You may prefer mild-flavored garlic that is also hot, or strongly flavored garlic with mild spiciness.

hardneck garlic

Hardneck garlic (above) has a visible stem in the middle of the cloves.


softneck garlic

Softneck garlic does not have a central stem.


Garden garlic has two subspecies: 1) Softneck garlic (var. sativum) with artichoke, silverskin, and creole types. It produces larger yields of mild-flavored bulbs (that may be hot or spicy), store well, and may be braided for hanging. 2) Hardneck garlic (var. ophioscorodon) with rocambole, porcelain, purple-stripe, and asiatic/turban types. It has stronger and more complex flavors with shorter storage life for bulbs; and produces edible flower stalks called “scapes.”

Garlic scape

Garlic scape


Grow softneck garlic only in warm-summer, warm-winter California areas with mild frosts or no frosts. Hardneck garlic is rarely grown successfully for bulbs in warm-winter areas because it requires vernalization (cold weather) and a long day length with cool temperatures for bulbing.

The best growing season for garlic is fall through spring in most of California because garlic suffers in hot weather. The winter growing season coincides with the least sunlight and shortest days. Be sure to plant softneck garlic in an area that will receive full sun throughout the winter.

The best availability of seed garlic (cloves and bulbs) is in a narrow window from about September through November, and it may have limited availability or be hard to find for the rest of the year. Preorder in July or August for best selection. For best yields, avoid planting garlic sold at markets or as food because of higher likelihood for disease and possible treatment to inhibit sprouting. In mild-winter, mild-summer areas of California, garlic can be grown year-round or almost year-round. At times of year when seed garlic isn’t available, plant large cloves from bulbs purchased at farmers markets. Treat any garlic purchased from food markets before planting (see below).

Watering: The best method for watering garlic is generally drip irrigation, especially in heavy soils, which allows for infiltration of water over time. Consider installing drip irrigation before planting, which can save hassle and damage to plants later on. See Watering Tips for Softneck Garden Garlic for more watering information.

The winter growing season is also the rainy season for most of California. Garlic is prone to disease during prolonged periods of rain or when overwatered, especially when planted in heavy clay soil or in any soil that lacks good drainage. Water may pool below the soil surface or in compacted areas underground, with poor drainage sometimes being problematic even when the soil surface is dry. For many reasons garlic rarely thrives when planted into heavy or infertile soils. The best solution for many gardeners and in most uncultivated soils is to plant garlic in raised beds that are at least 8-12 inches deep and filled with loose, fertile soil that is high in organic matter and holds moisture but drains well during winter rains.

Germination and planting: Garlic is grown from cloves (smaller tubular, pointed portions of a bulb), often referred to as “seed garlic,” but which are not actually seeds. Store seed garlic (cloves and bulbs) until planting without breaking up bulbs and in a cool or cold, dry, dark place with air circulation, such as in braids or in mesh bags (not below freezing temperatures and not in a refrigerator). When bulbs are cracked or broken, individual cloves tend to degrade and spoil quickly, within days to weeks.

Garlic sprouting

Garlic sprouting


Plant cloves directly outdoors after weather cools in fall. Avoid planting shriveled or damaged cloves, and any that are moldy or have visible fungal infection. Technically cloves sprout rather than germinate but gardeners and gardening guides often apply the two terms interchangeably to garlic.

GardenZeus recommends a 2-part soaking process for garlic cloves prior to planting to reduce or eliminate fungal spores or infections, harmful bacteria, mite and nematode eggs, and other pathogens and pests. The first treatment is soaking cloves for a few hours or overnight (at least 2 hours and up to 12 hours), in a solution of 1 teaspoon baking soda per quart of water. Adding a teaspoon of liquid seaweed extract per quart of water is optional but can help encourage rapid initial growth. This first soak can be followed by soaking cloves for up for several minutes in 70% isopropyl or rubbing alcohol. For 90% or higher isopropyl alcohol, dilute slightly with 20% additional water. Cloves should be planted immediately after being soaked in alcohol.

Amend soils with generous proportions of composted manure and nutrient-rich compost. Single-dig or double-dig soil to loosen it to a depth of at least 12 inches, remove stones and obstructions, and add compost and composted manure shortly before planting garlic.

It’s especially important in clay and heavy soils to loosen soil for several inches or more below the level where cloves will be planted. If you dig or loosen soil only to the depth of planting, this may create a zone just below the garlic roots where water tends to pool and cause disease. Wet soils and overwatering, or water pooling beneath soil surfaces, may be the most common reason for poor bulbing and failure of garlic crops in California.

In gardens with new, uncultivated, infertile, or compacted soils, plant garlic cloves into raised beds that are at least 8-12 inches deep and lined with half-inch hardware cloth to exclude gophers. Use a mixture of washed sand, topsoil, and up to 20% composted manure and nutrient-rich compost in the beds.

Planting individual garlic cloves.

Planting individual garlic cloves.


Plant garlic cloves under at least 1.5 inches of soil. Large cloves may produce larger bulbs, and can be planted under 2 inches of soil. The rounded or wider end of each clove (from the bottom of the bulb) will produce roots and should be planted down with the pointed or narrow end at top. If you can’t determine which end of the garlic clove is up, plant the clove sideways. See Spacing and Harvest Timelines for Softneck Garden Garlic.

Plant garlic into previously irrigated/moist soil, and be cautious about overwatering while cloves are sprouting, especially in cool soils, which may encourage rot. If planted into moist soil, garlic cloves often don’t need additional water until soil is dry down to at least a half-inch-to-an inch and/or cloves are fully sprouted. At this stage you can often check sprouting by moving soil from above a few cloves or prodding gently through loose soil to feel for stems.

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For more information about growing garlic see:

Garlic Care and Maintenance in the California Home Garden

Harvesting and Curing Garlic

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