Question: Can I take garlic bulbs sold in my local supermarket and plant the cloves in my garden?
Answer: Yes, you can, but…
Were The Bulbs Treated?
These days, most supermarket garlic comes from China and it’s often treated to prevent sprouting. (Good luck finding which chemicals were used: the Chinese have never been very open to sharing such information!) Essentially, it’s dead and can’t sprout. So, unless you can actually see store-bought garlic bulbs sprouting, you may be wasting your time by planting it.
To test if your garlic is alive or dead, put it in the fridge for a week or so, then take it out. Cold treatment followed by warmth tends to stimulate sprouting if any is possible.
That said, there may also be locally produced garlic in supermarkets (probably in the organic food section) and it will likely grow quite readily if you plant it.
Is It Adapted to Your Climate?
Supermarket garlic, and indeed, most garlic sold worldwide, is almost always softneck garlic (Allium sativum sativum). It’s not the cold hardiest kind and it’s rarely a good choice for cold climates. There are hardier varieties of softneck garlic … but a supermarket is no place to look for them!
So, in zone 6 and above, you could theoretically grow store-bought garlic for its bulbs. In cool temperate to cold climates, hardneck garlic (A. sativum ophioscordum), not found in the average supermarket, is usually the best choice.
Forget the Bulb and Eat the Leaves
Of course, any garlic that sprouts can at least be grown for its edible leaves. They taste just like mild garlic and are a wonderful addition to your cuisine. That might be the best way to grow store-bought garlic, especially in the North. You can even grow garlic for its leaves indoors if you want to, but there won’t be much of a bulb at harvest time.
If You Do Plant Store-Bought Garlic
Plant it very early in the spring (cool to cold climates), when the ground is still cold to the touch, or in fall or at the coldest time of the year (mild climates), as even softneck garlic needs a bit of cold to do its best. Without cold, leaves may grow, but bulb formation may be weak or absent.
The point here is that real gardeners grow garlic adapted to their local conditions rather than supermarket garlic, which is almost never the best choice. Instead, your local garden center probably sells appropriate varieties in the fall (the best time to plant garlic). Farmers’ markets, where you can actually talk to growers, are also an excellent source of climate-appropriate garlic: any garlic they successfully grow locally should be perfect for your conditions. Plus, there are nurseries specializing in garlic in most regions: that is where you should go for the widest choice and the best advice.
Sources of Garlic Cloves for Planting
August is just about the best time of the year to order garlic bulbs by mail for planting in your garden, so don’t hesitate!
Note that the following sources often mention garlic “seed,” but you won’t actually receive itsy-bitsy seeds, but rather garlic bulbs you can break up into cloves. The cloves are the “seed garlic” they refer to and are what you will be planting!