Every gardener should have a bed of garlic. But seed stock garlic bulbs are much more expensive than the bulbs at the grocery store – often double the cost! With such a huge price difference, gardeners often wonder “can I just grow grocery store garlic instead?”
The answer is yes, but there are some things you should know before you jump right in.
For instance, some grocery garlic might not grow or it might spread unwelcome diseases. Let’s discuss how to grow garlic you picked up at the grocery store:
Should You Grow Grocery Store Garlic?
You can plant and grow grocery store garlic. Store-bought garlic will usually sprout and grow as easily as seed stock garlic. Many home gardeners exclusively plant grocery store garlic and have lots of 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 quality control assurances in food garlic that there are in seed stock bulbs (available at most seed-supply stores and catalogs). It’s definitely a risk to plant the cheaper and easier option. Let’s discuss:
Risks of Grocery Store Garlic
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 in planting grocery store garlic is that it may not sprout. Seed stock garlic is fresh. It hasn’t been stored for long periods of time. Grocery store garlic can be very old. Garlic stores well for long periods of time, but after a while, it’s too old to sprout easily and well.
In many grocery stores, the garlic for sale is over a year old. It’s been thoroughly dried out, and even a season in the warm, damp earth isn’t going to revive it. Sometimes, when you plant a bed of grocery store garlic, you end up with only one or two scraggly plants. Other times, you could have an abundant harvest.
2. Wrong Variety
When you’re buying grocery store garlic, you often don’t know whether you’re buying a hard or soft-necked variety. Hard-neck garlic is much more cold-hardy. It produces strong, flavorful bulbs and spicy scapes in even the harshest climates.
For those of us in zones 5 and colder, hard-neck garlic is the only variety that will overwinter and sprout in the spring.
In cold climates, soft-necked garlic must be planted in early spring. So, if you’re growing grocery store garlic bulbs – unless the bulbs are labeled as a hard-neck variety, plant in early spring to avoid losing your whole crop.
3. Treated Bulbs
Not all grocery store garlic is treated with growth inhibitors, but some of it is. Some of the garlic bulbs sold at the grocery store have been shipped in from China. Since this garlic has spent a lot of time in transit, it’s often treated with sprout-inhibiting chemicals so that it will make it to far-away grocery stores intact.
Of course, these chemicals are going to ruin your garlic harvest. If your grocery store stocks locally raised garlic, buy it instead of generic, unlabeled bulbs. If not, seek out organic garlic to avoid the chemicals that make growing garlic successfully impossible.
4. Inconsistent Bulbs
Because grocery store garlic can come from a number of different farms, and vary wildly in age, health, and variety – there’s no telling what sort of bulbs it will produce. In the same soil, you may 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 bit uncertain. In fact, both my best and worst years of garlic growing have been with grocery store bulbs. Inconsistency can be a good thing too.
5. Pests and Diseases
By far the biggest concern in planting grocery store garlic is the possibility of introducing pests and diseases into your soil. Especially if you’re buying garlic from far away farms, it could bring in viruses, fungi, and allium-specific 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 home garden, these same pests and pathogens can live in the soil for years.
If you’re buying garlic to plant at the grocery store – choose the organic bulbs. These bulbs are much less likely to be carrying repressed diseases or pests.
How to Grow Grocery Store Garlic The Right Way
That may seem like a long list of negatives, but if you approach buying plantable grocery store garlic with the same care you bring to seed buying, you’ll be fine. All those caveats aside, grocery store garlic can be a great option for home gardeners.
Grocery store bulbs are inexpensive (even organic bulbs). In a good grocery store, you can usually also have access to locally grown varieties that will thrive in your growing zone.
If you decide to plant grocery store garlic instead of seed stock garlic, there are a few ways to increase your chances of success.
If you have access to local garlic in your grocery store (look for special, “Buy Local” displays), buy that garlic over the slightly cheaper, generic garlic. I promise, you’re paying a little bit more for a product that will perform much better.
If your grocery store doesn’t offer local produce, try looking at farmer’s market garlic. It’s guaranteed to be fresh, local, and untreated with anti-sprouting agents.
If you can’t find local garlic at the grocery store, look for organic garlic bulbs. Organic bulbs may be just as old as conventional garlic, but they’re more likely to sprout successfully.
Anti-sprouting agents can only be used on conventional garlic, so your organic bulbs are more likely to sprout and grow.
Check Your Seasons
If you’re buying grocery store garlic, and you’re not sure whether it’s hard or soft-neck garlic, check the growing zones for both. If soft-neck garlic can’t survive a winter in your growing zone, plant your bulbs in the early spring. For fall-planted bulbs, mulch heavily to protect the newly planted cloves from extreme temperatures. Remember, it’s better to have a late garlic harvest than no harvest at all.
Planting garlic, whether from the grocery store or the seed catalog, is easy. Plant hard-necked garlic in the fall. Soft-necked garlic can be planted in fall or spring, unless you live in USDA zones 1-5, in which case, you should only plant in the spring.
When it’s time to plant, start by preparing your soil. Pick a spot that will be in full sun, even during the summer. Add a generous amount of rich, organic matter – I like to use compost and goat manure. Keep the soil loose and well-drained while laying out rows for your garlic cloves.
Divide & Plant
Each garlic bulb divides into many cloves. Peel off the outer paper, leaving the individual cloves wrapped in their protective paper. Plant each clove – pointy-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 whole garlic bed should feel damp even below the surface of the soil. Poke a finger into the dirt after watering. If you can’t feel moisture throughout the whole length of your finger, keep watering.
Even if you know you’re planting hardy, hard-necked garlic, mulching is a great idea. Especially if you live in an area that sometimes dips below zero before the ground has a protective layer of snow.
To mulch, cover the garlic bed with straw or clean, fallen leaves. If there’s a long period of time between your garlic planting and the first hard frost, water lightly again once or twice – every week or two.
Early in the spring, it’s a good time to add a light fertilizer again. Wait until the soil has thawed and is easily workable. Then add a gentle amount of bone meal or well-composted manure.
Avoid adding chicken manure though, or anything with high doses of nitrogen. Instead, focus on root building. Balanced fertilizers and those with higher levels of phosphorus and potassium are ideal for root building.
Try blood or bone meal for strong root and bulb-building nutrients, though I’ve had great results with well-composted sheep and goat manure as well.
If you aren’t sure about when to harvest your marvelous new garlic bulbs, check out our guide.