Every gardener should have a bed of garlic. But seed garlic bulbs are much more expensive than bulbs from the grocery store – often double the price! With such a price difference, gardeners often wonder “can I just grow grocery store garlic instead?”
The answer is yes, but there are some things you need to know before you get started.
For example, some grocery store garlic might not grow or spread unwanted diseases. Let’s discuss how to grow garlic you bought at the grocery store:
- Should you grow grocery store garlic?
- Risks of garlic in the grocery store
- How to Grow Store Garlic the Right Way
- Planting tips
Should you grow grocery store garlic?
You can plant and grow grocery store garlic. Store-bought garlic will usually germinate and grow just as easily as seed garlic. Many home gardeners plant exclusively store-bought garlic and have great luck with it. But – and there’s a big “but” here – grocery store garlic can bring a host of problems to your garden.
There are none of the food grade garlic quality control assurances that come with seed stock bulbs (available at most seed stores and catalogs). It is definitely a risk to plant the cheapest and easiest option. Let’s discuss:
Risks of garlic in the grocery store
So what are some of the risks of planting grocery store garlic? After all, if it’s good enough to eat, it’s good enough to plant, right?
1. Old garlic
One of the biggest risks of planting grocery store garlic is that it won’t sprout. Seed garlic is fresh. It has not been stored for long periods. Garlic from grocery stores can be very old. Garlic keeps well for long periods of time, but after a while it gets too old to germinate easily and well.
In many grocery stores, the garlic for sale is over a year old. It has been completely dried out, and even a season in the hot, humid earth will not revive it. Sometimes when you plant a bed of grocery store garlic, you end up with only one or two ruffled plants. Other times you might have a bountiful harvest.
2. Wrong variety
When you buy garlic at the grocery store, you often don’t know if you’re buying a hardneck or softneck variety. Hardneck garlic is much more cold hardy. It produces strong, flavorful bulbs and spicy stems even in the harshest climates.
For those of us in zones 5 and colder, hardneck garlic is the only variety that will overwinter and sprout in the spring.
In cold climates, softneck garlic should be planted in early spring. So if you’re growing grocery store garlic bulbs – unless the bulbs are labeled as a hardneck variety, plant in early spring to avoid losing your entire crop.
3. Treated bulbs
Not all grocery store garlic is treated with growth inhibitors, but some are. Some of the garlic bulbs sold at the grocery store were shipped from China. Since this garlic has spent a long time in transit, it is often treated with sprout-inhibiting chemicals so that it makes it to distant grocery stores intact.
Of course, these chemicals will ruin your garlic crop. If your grocery store stocks locally grown garlic, buy it instead of generic, unlabeled bulbs. Otherwise, look for organic garlic to avoid chemicals that make growing garlic impossible.
4. Inconsistent bulbs
Because grocery store garlic can come from many different farms and vary wildly in age, health, and variety, it’s unclear what type of bulbs it will produce. In the same soil, you can end up with tiny, stunted bulbs and huge, beautiful bulbs. It’s a bit of a gamble.
That said, even seed stock garlic can produce unpredictable results. Gardening is always a little uncertain. In fact, my best and worst years growing garlic have been with grocery store bulbs. Inconsistency can also be a good thing.
5. Pests and diseases
By far, the biggest concern in planting grocery garlic is the possibility of introducing pests and diseases to your soil. Especially if you buy garlic from distant farms, it could bring allium-specific viruses, fungi, and parasites.
Garlic farms in California and China are home to a wide variety of pests and diseases that they keep at bay with commercial chemicals. In your vegetable garden, these same pests and pathogens can live in the soil for years.
If you buy plantable garlic at the grocery store, choose organic bulbs. These bulbs are much less likely to carry suppressed diseases or pests.
How to Grow Store Garlic the Right Way
It might seem like a long list of negatives, but if you plan to buy plantable grocery store garlic with the same care you take when buying seeds, you’ll be fine. All of these caveats aside, grocery store garlic can be a great option for home gardeners.
Grocery store bulbs are cheap (even organic bulbs). At a good grocery store, you can usually also access locally grown varieties that will thrive in your growing area.
If you decide to plant store garlic instead of seed garlic, there are several ways to increase your chances of success.
If you have access to local garlic at your grocery store (look for special “Buy Local” displays), buy that garlic rather than the slightly cheaper generic garlic. I promise you are paying a little more for a product that will perform much better.
If your grocery store doesn’t carry local produce, try looking at farmer’s market garlic. It is guaranteed fresh, local and not treated with anti-germination agents.
If you can’t find local garlic at the grocery store, look for organic garlic bulbs. Organic bulbs may be as old as conventional garlic, but they are more likely to sprout successfully.
Anti-sprout agents can only be used on conventional garlic, so your organic bulbs are more likely to sprout and grow.
Check your seasons
If you buy garlic at the grocery store and aren’t sure if it’s hard or soft, check the growing areas of both. If softneck garlic cannot survive a winter in your growing area, plant your bulbs in early spring. For bulbs planted in the fall, mulch heavily to protect the newly planted pods from temperature extremes. Remember that it is better to have a late garlic harvest than no harvest at all.
Planting garlic, whether it’s from the grocery store or the seed catalog, is easy. Plant hardneck garlic in the fall. Softneck garlic can be planted in fall or spring, unless you live in USDA Zones 1 through 5, in which case you should only plant in spring.
When planting, start by preparing your soil. Choose a location that will get full sun, even during the summer. Add a generous amount of rich organic material – I like to use compost and goat manure. Keep the soil loose and well-drained while laying out rows for your garlic cloves.
Divide and plant
Each bulb of garlic divides into several cloves. Peel off the outer paper leaving the individual pods wrapped in their protective paper. Plant each clove – pointed side up! – in the ground. The tip of the garlic clove should be about 1 to 3 inches below the surface of the soil.
Once all of your cloves are planted, water them well. You don’t need to soak the soil, but the entire garlic bed should be moist even below the soil surface. Poke a finger into the soil after watering. If you don’t feel moisture along the full length of your finger, keep watering.
Even if you know you’re planting hardy, hardneck garlic, mulching is a great idea. Especially if you live in an area that sometimes dips below freezing before the ground is covered with a protective layer of snow.
To mulch, cover the garlic bed with straw or clean dead leaves. If there is a long period of time between your garlic planting and the first hard frost, lightly water once or twice – weekly or every two weeks.
Early spring is a good time to add a light fertilizer again. Wait until the ground is thawed and easy to work with. Then add a small amount of bone meal or well-composted manure.
Avoid adding chicken manure or anything with high doses of nitrogen though. Instead, focus on building roots. Balanced fertilizers and those with higher levels of phosphorus and potassium are ideal for root formation.
Try blood or bone meal for strong nutrients for building roots and bulbs, although I’ve also had great results with well-composted sheep and goat manure.
If you’re not sure when to harvest your wonderful new garlic bulbs, check out our guide.
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