Mulched Garlic vs. Unmulched Garlic

We have always mulched our garlic crop. Last year, we planted one unmulched bed of Porcelain garlic as a trial.

In the spring, the unmulched garlic sprouted and emerged from the soil earlier than the mulched garlic. Visually, there seemed to be more winterkilled cloves in the unmulched garlic (though a low enough amount to not be a concern). There have also been many more weeds in the unmulched garlic. However we could weed with hand tools since there was no mulch in the way.

None of those results surprised me. (I was happy about the low winterkill.)

I was really surprised (knocked right off my feet!!!) when I harvested a few Porcelain garlic plants to sell at market as green garlic. I started with the unmulched garlic and was pleased to see that the bulbs were a mostly a decent size. When I pulled the mulched bulbs, they had barely begun to swell and were a fraction of the size of the unmulched bulbs.

2014-07-04 Garlic comparewtmk

I imagine since the unmulched garlic emerged earlier, it also put on more leaf growth earlier, and therefore had more energy to start bulbing earlier. I’m guessing that the unmulched garlic will also be fully mature 1-2 weeks earlier than our mulched crop.

We will be repeating this trial in the fall. We’ll also add a Rocambole and Marbled Purple Stripe to the trial to see how they fare without mulch. If we can consistently get earlier garlic without mulch and have acceptable winterkill rates, we could grow a portion of our crop unmulched to spread out the harvest over a longer window.

Do you have any stories to share about mulched vs. unmulched garlic?

35 thoughts on “Mulched Garlic vs. Unmulched Garlic

  1. As you know, I had > 95% winterkill in my unmulched garlic during the 2012-13 winter. Another grower in my area who do mulch had only 30%. True, the conditions where particularly extreme that winter, and our field conditions differs, but is it possible a mulch would have made a difference for me? I don’t know. My feeling is that mulching is an hindrance in typical season, but do help when the conditions gets difficult.

    1. Salut Étienne,

      That is some serious winterkill. I would choose 30% over 95% any year!

      Did you think about mulching a part of your crop as insurance for future extreme years?

      I actually like mulch on garlic. As long as you use clean materials, weed pressure should be very low. It really reduces the need for irrigation. It makes the soil easier to dig into during harvest. The biggest downside is the time it takes to mulch a 1/4 acre by hand!


  2. I used a chopped leaves mulch in my garlic this last year as I have before…..this year’s garlic is getting regular irrigation which hastens the decomposition of the mulch, and now, a few weeks to harvest, I have some weeding to do, which with the mulch in place means hands and knees and climbing St Joseph’s Oratory kind of thing….I am thinking this fall to chop the leaves less to create a more impermeable and slow to decay mulch, will also save me some gas and time in the shredding process….unmulched here in excessively well drained sand isn’t a great option, and only with mulch can I make crops like garlic and potatoes into soil building rather than depleting crops….another reason to love the loam, eh?

    1. Hey Frank,

      Do you guys need to irrigate your garlic even if it’s mulched? Does the sandy soil drain so well that mulch isn’t enough to preserve moisture?

      Good luck with your less chopped mulch!

  3. 3/4 of our garlic was unmulched last fall, but not by design, just didn’t get it done. We had snow early (Nov 25) and it stayed, so there was very little winter loss, maybe 5 spots out of about 1400 garlic. Lucky! The unmulched garlic was definitely up and growing a good 2 weeks ahead. We hoed it a couple of times and then applied a light mulch so we wouldn’t have to spend more time on it. So it is sort of a combination approach. It looks like it will be ready earlier than the mulched bed. Will be interesting to see if there’s much difference in harvest size.

    1. Hi Kristine,

      Sounds like you’re having similar results. Have you always fall mulched?

      Please keep me posted on your harvest results.


  4. Hi Dan – yes, I’ve always fall-mulched, not right after planting (usually by Thanksgiving), but when it gets to freezing temps at night. Part of the reason being that snow cover isn’t consistent – either late arriving, or gets blown off our open field.

  5. Just a suggestion: It is possible that the unmulched garlic is maturing faster due to warmer/drier conditions. You’ll have to compare using the final yields to really tell.

    That being said, I don’t mulch my garlic…

    1. We had a cold wet spring this year. The mulch on the garlic kept the ground frozen longer than usual slowing down emergence. In a warm dry year, the mulched garlic emerges quicker.

      I’ll be pulling the unmulched garlic on Thursday and start pulling the mulched garlic next week. I’m looking forward to the results!


  6. Hi Dan,

    That looks like some nice garlic! I did a very small trial last season (approximately 30 bed ft.) planting the garlic into black plastic mulch then covering it with straw. In the spring I removed the straw into the alleys which gave the double benefit of not needing to weed them and also conserving moisture. I had no noticeable winter kill and much earlier growth (at least with Music, I tried a few other varieties but had nothing to compare them with). It’s certainly extra work when prepping to plant and in the early spring but no weeding needed to be done. One downside was a few of the garlic’s pseudostems lost their way under the plastic and needed to be coaxed through the holes they were planted in, if I were to try it again I might use a dibbler of some sort to make the holes larger.

    As I said it was a very small trial, I don’t know if the extra time and resources at certain points in the season are worth the benefits but I am looking forward to trying it on a larger scale again soon.

    Thanks for the great post, I look forward to hearing how your future trials work out.


  7. Tried several different types and combinations of fall mulch, always immediately after planting, but I mulch fairly lightly in thickness, I guess. 1-2 inches of chopped wheat, oat or barley straw and thin covering of re-chopped clean shredded bark, which is heavy enough to keep the chopped straw from blowing off the raised beds that are not trod on.

    NE Wisconsin, lake effects, ice means later spring warmup, but once temperatures warm in spring and garlic is about a foot tall, I will add an inch of chopped straw for more consistent moisture, weed suppression.

    Everything in the garden seems about two weeks behind schedule this summer with the Great Lakes ice cover last winter and cooler temps. Garlic beds are planted with cover crops right after harvest. Buckwheat is grown for seed and organic matter/nutrient retention, plant disease avoidance. Oats and peas, cereal rye, other cover crop alternatives that I use.

    All The best.

  8. Hi Dan,

    I think it depends on the weather like you mentioned above. We mulched in 2012 and we were thankful since it was a drought – we also irrigated. We even added extra mulch in April because of that warm spell and we were worried about cold damage. We also mulched last year, but we had serious perennial weed pressure – Canadian thistle that came right through the mulch. We didn’t have time to weed and felt that our bulb size was down about 20% with competition from the thistle. So this past fall, since we were moving to mechanical cultivation we decided not to mulch. However, on new land that doesn’t drain well, we have our worst garlic crop to date. We are even considering spring planting since our soil drains slowly and poorly during a wet spring. We planted garlic and bulbils this spring in a different field and it will be as good or better than our fall planted garlic.

    1. on the note of moisture and mulch in salmon arm, british columbia. does anyone do raised beds to reduce water in soil? we fall mulch with grass clippings and lawn tractor collected leaves and we plant in the field that is subirrigated. april was very warm but june and july was wet and cool. the last weeks befor harvest rained and we should have taken off the mulch because we’ve had rot/fungus damage. mulch is great for weed control but retained too much moisture.

  9. I have trouble with the mulch blowing off my raised beds in winter in Michigan. I may try the shredded hardwood idea. Any other ideas?

    1. We don’t have a big problem with mulch blowing away despite being in a windy area. I find that once the mulch get’s soaked in the rain it stays in place.

      Here are a couple thoughts though: If the area is small enough, you could use old sheets to hold the bed down. Another option might be to plant your garlic into a oat cover crop. The oats might hold you mulch in place. They would also help catch any snow accumulation.

      Best of luck!

    2. You may regret using wood chips if that is what you mean by shredded. As the chips get tilled into the soil ypu will lose nitrogen content. In addition the soil will become less suitable for seed crops that like a fine seed bed.

      1. I gave up mulching in the fall for the same reason. I am in central NY and have no problem with winter kill or heaving. Mulch in the spring with chopped leaves, they do a grat job in keeping the weeds down.. D

  10. I live in central New York. I never fall mulch but put a lot of chopped leaves down whengarlic is a ft high. Does away with the weeding.. they start growing a little after I cut the scapes but don’t worry about them then.. over the years I would guess my winter kill at less than 2%. I plant the cloves 1 1/2 to 2 inches deep and have never had one heaved put.

  11. You just made my day. 🙂
    I didn’t get a chance to mulch my garlic before the snow (first time grower ) inwas freaking out but this gives me hope 🙂

    1. Hi Bruce, Unmulchec garlic is not the end of the world. However this last winter we had some heavy losses in our unmulched garlic – about 20% of Rocamboles & Porcelains; 50%+ of Artichokes. It was really a harsh winter with no snowfall in our area. Best of luck for your crop, Dan

  12. I live in Ontario, Canada on heavy poorly drained clay soil. I only mulched my garlic 10 years ago when I first grew it. In the spring it was a chore getting the mulch off the sprouting garlic shoots so I haven’t done it since. I have had nearly 100% growth rate with the exception of last year using with old cloves instead of clove dug that summer. I grow Music, Rocamboles and elephant garlic. I plant at least 3 inches deep.

  13. I tried planting some in a raised bed. Had poor results. 2 years later I had 25 cloves left so stuck them in a raised bed again. They came out great so put 100 in raised beds this fall. Just put 3 inches of chopped leaves over them. We will see what happens with these. I mulch the ones inthe garden the 20 to 30 th of April. Keeps the weeds down very well.
    I chop my leaves by putting them in a large trash can and use my weed eater. Does a wonderful job.

  14. This was the first year that I left my garlic un-mulched (raised bed). Despite living on the edge of zone 4/5, with a long winter and sub-zero temperatures, I had my best yield of garlic to date. In fact, I found your article looking for more support to not mulch again this year. My garlic matured about two weeks ahead of schedule also. For those interested my varieties were (Porcelain) Romanian Red, (Purple Stripe) Chesnok Red and (Rocambole) Spanish Roja

    1. Sounds like a great harvest. For us, the main challenges with not mulching have been weed control and the need to irrigate more. As such we have not embraced unmulched garlic!

    2. I live in central Ontario zone 5a. I have raised elephant and 2 varieties of hard neck garlic for many years. I only mulched the first year and it was a pain removing the mulch in the spring as many garlic shoots were bent over under the mulch already reaching for the sun. This past winter, with extreme cold temperature and no snow cover, was the first time I’e experienced a problem with survival and it was only my elephant garlic that suffered. I will continue to use NO mulch as the alternative is not worth the effort on the scale I grow it.

  15. I live in central NY . Have grown garlic for 30 years. Things I have learned..
    Mulching in the fall does nothing and I have had very little winter kill since stopping . 1 to 2 % at the most. One out of 200 this year and maybe I missed that spot when planting..
    I mulch with chopped leaves around the 20th of April.. and have very few weeds to pull..
    The garlic I grow in raised beds is always 20% smaller over all.
    I plant the cloves 2 1/2 to 3 inches deep. Till my rows and then dig a trench Around 8 inches deep. Put 30 year old compost in bottom and then a 1/2 inch or so of chopped cabbage leaves, and then an inch of soil over that. Place cloves in that soil 6 inches apart and fill trench with soil. A lot of work but it pays off with a consistant crop of very large cloved bulbs. German red and white and Music..

      1. Yes, at least 30 years old. A huge pile of horse manure/straw. I call it “black Gold”. Have found the more I use the shorter the roots and the larger the bulbs.

  16. This comment isn’t about mulching garlic, although I came here to read about mulching garlic, a topic of great interest to me. I just wanted to let you know that the very faint text on a light gray background–both post and comments–is very, very hard for me to read. I have pretty good eyes, but after reading the post and just a few of the comments my eyes hurt pretty badly. FWIW.

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