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Garlic part of winter solstice tradition

To harvest garlic like this in late June, plant garlic now.
(Photo courtesy Penn State University Cooperative Extension)

Plant cloves on the shortest day for summer harvest

Plant on the shortest day; harvest on the longest. That’s the garlic mantra.

Is the winter solstice really the best day to plant garlic? And summer solstice the peak of harvest?

To develop mature bulbs, garlic needs about six months. In Sacramento and parts of California where hard frosts are rare, that solstice-to-solstice schedule is both easy to remember and effective. It’s a tradition for a reason: It works.

To celebrate today’s first day of winter, plant some cloves and watch them develop through the seasons.

We really love garlic. Americans now eat four times as much garlic per capita as we did in 1980, averaging about 2.5 pounds per person a year. Although garlic has been grown in the United States since the 1700s, it was primarily considered an Asian medicinal herb until the 1920s. That’s when Italian immigrants in California first popularized its culinary assets.

Thanks to Gilroy and other garlic centers, California is The Garlic State, leading the nation in production. Historically, the two most common commercial varieties are the aptly named California Early and California Late, according to UC Davis and state ag reports. Both of these California favorites are “softneck” or silver skin varieties. They rarely produce seed stalks. Instead, they concentrate their energy into making new bulbs.

Love of the stinking rose has brought interest to many other varieties. Creole, the purple-skinned garlic commonly grown in Mexico, is a “hardneck” garlic. Other popular hardnecks include Roja, German Red, Valencia and Continental. Also called top-setting garlic, it produces a strong stem or “scape” (itself an unusual vegetable) and little bulbils (like mini bulbs) on top. Those bulbils can be planted to produce new garlic plants.

Besides adding flavor to summer meals, garlic plants also act as a natural pest deterrent. But they can be finicky. Avoid planting garlic in the same spot where onions, garlic or other alliums have grown in the past two or three years; that cuts down on potential pest problems and other issues.

Here are more tips for garlic-growing success:

* Garlic needs good drainage. It can’t stand soggy feet. Plant in raised beds or containers for best results. Add a few scoops of well-aged compost before planting.

* Plant the individual cloves, not a whole bulb. Break apart a bulb within 24 hours of planting; that preserves the piece of “foot” at the base of the clove that will form new roots.

* Plant the cloves 2 inches deep with the pointy end up, spaced 6 to 8 inches apart. Water once, then let rest. They’ll need water once a week through January and early February; usually, rain will take care of that irrigation.

* After the cloves sprout, water once or twice a week. Avoid soggy soil (that prompts rot), but keep soil from completely drying out.

* Garlic doesn’t like competition; remove any weeds around the young plants.

* For late birds, garlic can be planted in spring for late summer or fall harvest.

For lots more on growing great garlic, visit the Vegetable Research and Information Center resource page from the UC Cooperative Extension:


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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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