Garlic Plant Growth Stages | Life Cycle

Do you double or even triple the amount of garlic a recipe calls for from the very start? Me too! 

If you’re craving more flavor than grocery-store garlic has to offer, you might want to try growing your own. It’s super easy to do, and you don’t need a ton of space to cultivate a bumper crop of garlic.

Garlic (Allium sativum) grows a bit differently than garden veggies like peppers and tomatoes. In this article, I’ll explain the different garlic growth stages and offer some tips and tricks for getting the most from this pungent crop.

Conditions for Growing Garlic

Garlic belongs to the Allium family, which also includes onions, shallots, leeks, and chives. The main edible part of a garlic plant is the underground bulb. However, the leaves are also harvested and eaten in some cases.

Garlic needs a period of cool weather to grow to its full potential, so it’s common practice to start garlic in the fall or winter. The first sprouts appear when the weather warms up in the spring. A good rule of thumb in most climates is to plant garlic in October to be harvested the following July.

Garlic plants need full sun for optimal growth. Select a planting site that receives 6 to 8 hours of sun per day on average.

As is the case when growing other bulb-forming vegetables, loose, well-draining soil is an absolute must. Compacted, heavy, or debris-filled soil will interfere with healthy bulb formation.

In my experience, the easiest way to grow high-quality garlic is by using raised beds or large pots. With this strategy, your native soil composition doesn’t even matter! I recommend using a container that is at least 10 inches deep.

According to Ohio State University, garlic plants will tolerate soil pH levels of 6.0 to 8.0 but a range of 6.0 to 6.5 is ideal.

Garlic is a heavy feeder that needs relatively high amounts of nitrogen. Amend the soil with aged compost or a high-nitrogen fertilizer prior to planting. Fertilize again in late spring when the bulbs begin to swell to prevent chlorosis.

Garlic doesn’t need much water to thrive. Supply at least ½ inch of water per week, either through natural rainfall or irrigation. Water deeply for the best bulb formation.

Growth Stages Of Garlic

On average, garlic takes approximately 240 to 270 days (or 8 to 9 months) to be ready for harvest after planting. It takes about 90 days for most garlic to mature after growth starts in the spring. 

Keep in mind that there are several garlic varieties out there, and the average growth rate can vary from one to another. These varieties can be grouped into the following types:

  • Hardneck garlic is the best type to grow if you live in a cool climate with rough winters. These garlic varieties get their name from the thick, rigid stalk that grows from the center of the bulb. 
  • Softneck garlic doesn’t require significant cold exposure for good bulb formation, making this type ideal for warmer climates. Softneck garlic plants have a sheath of flexible leaves instead of a tough, central stalk.
  • Elephant garlic, or Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum, is not a ‘true’ garlic but it is functionally used as one. Elephant garlic cultivation is very similar to that of hard-neck garlic but has a milder flavor profile.

The garlic sold in most grocery stores is that of the soft neck variety. If you live in a Northern climate and visit your local farmer’s market, however, you’re more likely to find hard-neck garlic for sale.

1. Clove Selection

The vast majority of garlic is grown from cloves — not seeds. With proper care, a single garlic clove will sprout and transform into a new plant, complete with its own full, edible bulb.

The garlic we eat today has been carefully cultivated for thousands of years. As a result, most modern garlic plants produce seeds that are non-viable (incapable of germinating) or not at all true-to-type. 

Plants sprouting from garlic cloves are clones of the original bulb. This is great news because it means you can duplicate your favorite strain of garlic indefinitely within your garden.

Clove Selection
Garlic can be grown from seed or more often from individual bulb cloves

When browsing your local seed catalog or garden store, you might come across something called ‘seed garlic’. Despite the name, seed garlic is simply cloves that have been specially harvested and stored for future planting.

While they will probably sprout, I don’t recommend planting cloves from the grocery store in your garden. These gloves are often chemically treated prior to ending up in your grocer’s produce section. They probably aren’t adapted to your local climate, anyway.

Fall-planted garlic cloves have a chance to grow a limited root system prior to the first frost. All other significant growth will occur after a cold dormancy period.

2. Vernalization

In addition to their long growing season, garlic plants require exposure to cold temperatures to trigger proper bulb development. This process is called vernalization.

Vernalization places environmental stress on the planted garlic clove, causing it to split into several different cloves and form a bulb.

Hardneck and elephant garlic need 30 to 60 days of temperatures at or below 40°F for bulb formation.

Softneck garlic also benefits from vernalization but not to the same extent as its hardier counterparts. Expose soft neck varieties to 14 to 21 days of temperatures just below 40°F for the best results.

3. Vegetative Growth

Once soil temperatures warm to 55°F, planted garlic cloves will sprout in about 7 to 14 days

At first, only one leaf will appear. Within about 5 to 7 days, however, your garlic plant should have at least 3 small leaves growing up from the clove. New leaves will continue emerging from the center of the plant over the next several days.

At the end of the vegetative growth stage, most garlic plants will have at least 6 to 9 leaves and be up to 2 feet tall.

Vegetative Growth - Garlic Plant Growth Stages

4. Scaping

Scapes are immature flower stalks typically produced by hard-neck garlic varieties. These stems are curly and have a small, closed flower bud at the tip. 

Garlic scapes usually emerge 60 days after the clove sprouts in the spring, or about 240 days after planting.

You can harvest garlic scapes and use them in any way you would normal garlic cloves. Either way, I recommend removing developing scapes as they consume valuable energy that would otherwise go toward bulb maturation.

5. Bulb Formation

Up until this point, the garlic bulb remains very small while the plant focuses on putting out healthy top growth. Rapid bulb development will begin in spring, once the day length is at least 12 to 14 hours.

6. Flowering

Scapes that are left intact will open when the bulb reaches maturity. Garlic plants have white or purple umbel flowers intermixed with immature cloves called bulbils.

Bulbils are clones of the parent plant and can be collected and planted in the same manner as full-size garlic cloves. Unfortunately, it takes several years for a bulbil to develop into a garlic plant, which is why they’re far less popular.

garlic flowering
Beautiful garlic flower, typical of the allium family

It’s very rare for soft-neck garlic to produce a scape and bloom. If your soft-neck garlic does show signs of flowering, you can treat it just as you would a hard-neck variety.

Pollinated garlic flowers will also produce true seeds. As I mentioned earlier, however, these seeds are rarely viable and (if they do germinate) won’t grow to resemble the parent plant. Pollination is not needed for bulbil development.

When To Harvest Garlic

Garlic takes about 270 days to fully mature, so you should mark your calendar for the following summer when you first plant your cloves. 

A good visual clue that the garlic is ready to harvest is the appearance of yellow, slightly droopy foliage. Garlic should be harvested before the top turns completely yellow or dries out.

I recommend digging up one or two plants to determine whether the entire crop is ready. A mature garlic bulb will be a decent size, have many cloves, and be covered in dry, papery skin.

FAQ Garlic Plant Growth Stages

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Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.