Growing your own garlic is a very fulfilling task. The varieties available to home growers are far more diverse and flavorful than what you can find at the grocery store. Plus, growing garlic is pretty easy. But what if you don’t have an in-ground vegetable garden? Can you still grow garlic? Absolutely! In this article, I’m going to share everything you need to know about how to grow garlic in pots.
Garlic growing basics for containers
Before we dive into the specifics about how to grow garlic in pots, it’s essential that you understand a few basics about how garlic grows. Garlic has a long growing season. And by long, I mean lllllooooonnnggg. It takes about 8 to 9 months for a small planted garlic clove to develop into a ready-to-harvest head of garlic. Yes, that means you could grow a whole human baby in the same amount of time it takes to grow a head of garlic! Don’t let the timeline stop you, though. Homegrown garlic is a treasure that’s well worth the long wait (just like a baby, but without the midnight feedings). Typically, in cooler climates, the cloves are planted in the autumn (usually around the time of your first frost) and the heads aren’t harvested until the following summer.
The best type of garlic for planting in pots
There are two types of garlic for growing in containers or in the ground: Hardneck and softneck. I’ve already written an in-depth article about the differences between hardneck and softneck garlic, so I’ll just give you the basic factors that influence how to grow garlic in pots here.
Hardneck = Due to its hardiness, this is the best garlic for growing in cold climates where cold winter temperatures are the norm.
Softneck = Because softneck varieties are often less winter-hardy, they are best grown in mild climates.
Before I introduce the planting technique for both of these types of garlic, let’s quickly talk about which garlic to grow in pots based on what type of climate you live in.
The best garlic for growing in pots in a cold climate
I live in Pennsylvania, which means cold winters, so hardneck garlics are my preferred choice due to their hardiness. There are hundreds of flavorful varieties of hardneck garlics to grow. But, here’s a very important thing to understand when it comes to growing garlic in containers: Hardneck garlic varieties must be exposed to 6 to 8 weeks of temperatures below 45 degrees F in order for them to sprout and develop into a full head of garlic the following season. If you live in a cold-winter climate like me, that’s no problem. Hardneck garlics are your go-to choice.
The best garlic for growing in pots in a mild climate
If you live in a warmer climate that doesn’t receive at least 6 to 8 weeks of temperatures below 45 degrees F, you have one of two options. Either grow softneck garlics by planting them in the fall, or pre-chill hardneck garlics to “fake them out”. Yep, you read that right. Give hardneck garlic a fake winter by sticking the bulbs in a paper bag in the crisper drawer of the fridge for about 8 weeks before planting them in pots in the early spring. They’ll think they’ve gone through a winter period and will grow just as they would have if you lived in a cold climate. Who says you can’t fool Mother Nature?
Selecting a container for growing potted garlic
Once you know which type of garlic to grow in your containers, it’s time to choose a pot. While terra cotta pots are a popular choice, they are not the best option for growing garlic. Their porous nature means you’ll be a slave to watering for 8 to 9 months – no gardener I know wants that. In addition, water often gets into those pores and freezes in the winter, causing the pots to flake and crack. Instead of terra cotta, I recommend using either a plastic, glazed ceramic, fiberstone, or plasti-stone pot. Since the pot will sit outdoors all winter long, make sure the pot is frost-proof and will not crack. This is especially important if you choose a glazed ceramic pot.
Your selected container needs to have a drainage hole in the bottom, and it should be at least 8 inches deep to allow ample room for the roots to grow. How wide the pot should be depends on how many cloves of garlic you intend to grow. My garlic-planting pot is 22 inches in diameter, and I plant 8 to 10 cloves inside. The larger the container, the more cloves you can plant (and the less frequently you have to water – bonus!).
Which soil is best for growing garlic in a container
When it comes to learning how to grow garlic in pots, please know that your success depends on many things, but one of the most critical – and often the most neglected – is choosing the best soil mix for the job. Garlic needs a well-drained soil mix or the cloves may rot, especially during the winter if you receive a lot of precipitation. But garlic also needs fertile soil that’s heavy enough to support the tall plants and expanding heads in the spring and summer. For that reason, I recommend mixing a high-quality potting soil with compost at a ratio of 75:25. That means for every 3 cups of potting soil, mix in 1 cup of compost. If you don’t make your own compost, purchase it by the bag. To save money, you can also use my basic DIY potting soil recipe found here if you want to mix your own from scratch.
The best fertilizer for garlic planted in a pot
After you’ve filled your container with a mix of potting soil and compost, it’s time to add the right fertilizer. Garlic is a bulb plant, just like daffodils and tulips, and in order for it to produce top-sized heads of garlic, the plants require a good bit of phosphorous. Mix 2 to 3 tablespoons of a granular organic fertilizer that’s formulated specifically for bulbs into the pot. I like BulbTone, but there are other brands on the market, too. Use a trowel to stir in the fertilizer and distribute it evenly throughout the pot.
When and how to plant garlic in a container
Right around the time of your first frost is the best time to plant garlic in pots. To plant, split the head of garlic into its individual cloves by cracking it apart. Don’t be shy about this; you won’t hurt it. Save the biggest cloves for planting and use the smallest ones in the kitchen.
Sink each clove into the soil, pointy end up, so the base of the clove sits about 3 inches beneath the soil surface. Remember, the soil will settle a bit after you water it in. Unlike planting it in the ground, when you’re growing garlic in pots there’s no need to use a trowel; just push each clove down into the potting mix with your finger. Space your cloves about 3 to 4 inches apart. Do not cram them together. To form large heads, the cloves need plenty of room.
Once the cloves have been planted, water the pot well and put a 1- to 2-inch-thick layer of mulch on top of the pot. I like to use straw, but you can also use finely shredded leaves. This mulch layer helps insulate the bulbs through the winter.
It is absolutely essential that you keep the pot watered throughout the garlic’s entire life cycle. Yes, that means you’ll be watering occasionally for the next 8 to 9 months, including during the winter if the soil isn’t frozen. When learning how to grow garlic in pots, this cannot be stressed enough. Lack of water is responsible for many dead pots of garlic upon spring’s arrival.
What to do with pots of garlic in the winter
Place your pot of garlic in a sunny location that receives at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun per day. If you live in a mild climate, you can let the pot sit in this same location all winter long, but if you live in a cold climate, when winter arrives, move the pot to a sheltered spot next to your house. To help insulate the soil and bulbs, pile fall leaves or straw up around the sides of the container. Don’t pile them on top of the pot; just around its exterior. Alternatively, I’ve wrapped the pot in a few layers of bubble wrap to give it some added insulation. You can skip this step if you don’t mind risking the bulbs freezing out. In most years, they will be fine. But, if a good old “polar vortex” decides to show up, all bets are off.
How to care for container garlic in the spring and summer
When spring arrives, move the pot of garlic back out into the sunshine and continue to regularly water it. Sprinkle another 2 tablespoons of granular organic bulb fertilizer on top of the soil’s surface. In early spring, tiny green shoots will emerge from the soil. Soon, they’ll grow into large green stalks. If you’ve grown hardneck garlic in your pot, they’ll produce a scape (curly flower stalk) in early summer. Snap the scape off to divert the plant’s energy into growing a bigger bulb. Then, let the plants grow until the foliage is about 50% yellow. When that happens, it’s time to harvest!
When to harvest garlic grown in pots
Garlic leaves typically begin to yellow in early summer. Once they’re half yellow (at my house, that’s often around early or mid July), dump out the pot and unearth the heads of garlic. For information on curing and storing harvested garlic, visit this article.
As you can see, learning how to grow garlic in pots is a worthwhile task. Yes, you’re in it for the long haul, but I promise the rewards are absolutely delicious.
For more on growing in containers, check out the following articles: