Garlic is one of the easiest things to grow in your garden. It really is hard to have a black thumb when it comes to planting this culinary delight. The best part of growing your own garlic is the wide variety available for growth. Different varieties of garlic have their own unique taste profiles and characteristics. Garlic grown commercially mainly come from artichoke garlic. Artichoke type garlic is a softneck variety known for its large size and long storage life. Two traits that are commercially desirable. However, commercial desirability rules out a whole spectrum of flavor dense garlic available to home gardeners.
Garlic has literally been cultivated for thousands of years. It is mentioned in the writings of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. The Chinese have used it as a medicinal herb for centuries. It grows wild in many regions (including my backyard). My point is with this long, rich tradition there are many subtleties of flavor in each variety of garlic. Why limit yourself to what is commercially available?
Garlic is a member of the genus Allium which also includes familiar favorites like onions, shallots, leeks and chives. The full botanical name is Allium sativum. This species is further divided into 2 subspecies: ophioscorodon and sativum. Why is this important? Other than being important information for a 10th grade biology class, the 2 subspecies of garlic have characteristics important when choosing which variety to cultivate. The more common names for the 2 subspecies are hardneck and softneck varieties.
Hardneck varieties got their name because of the hard stem or neck that grows out of the center of the bulb. When you see those big bunches of braided garlic in charming European kitchens you can be sure that is not hardneck garlic. Because of the hard stem it is not suitable for braiding. Hardneck garlic also is considered to have a “hotter” flavor than the softneck kind. Another unique characteristic is the production of garlic scapes.
Garlic scapes are the curly-cue shoots that are essentially the flowering bud of the garlic. Growers cut off the scape so that all the plant productive efforts go towards bigger bulb production. But don’t throw them away! They have a delicious mild garlic flavor and can be prepared in a dish all to themselves.
Another important fact about hardneck garlic it its hardiness to colder winters. If you live in a northern latitude you probably will want to choose a hardneck variety. Especially if you are planting in the fall.
Softneck garlic is the milder flavor cousin to the hardneck variety. This is the type that you will see braided in the charming European kitchens. Softneck garlic has a soft flexible stem growing from the center that makes this possible. Another key difference is softnecks do not produce garlic scapes. You don’t have to worry about removing them, but you also miss out on the yummy goodness.
Softneck garlic is suitable to more milder climates. It is not as tolerant to harsh winters as the hardneck varieties. It doesn’t mean you can grow it in more northern latitudes, but you will have to take care to protect it from harsh winter elements.
Garlic is usually planted in the fall. Think tulips and daffodils. The hardneck varieties especially need the long period of cooler temperatures in order to grow. If you live in a northern latitude and want to grow a softneck variety, you may want to wait and plant them in early spring, much like you do onions. If planting in the fall use a thick layer of mulch to help protect the cloves during the winter.
To plant, separate the bulb into cloves. Plant each clove 1-2″ deep about 4-6″ apart. Leave about 1 foot between rows. Plant the pointy end up and the blunt end down. Water if the soil is dry. You want to give your cloves a nice environment for the roots to grow a little bit and settle in for the winter.
Your garlic should be ready to dig in July or early August. When the leaves start dying back it will be ready for harvest. If planting hardneck garlic, the scapes should start to appear in late May into June.
Garlic has very little to worry about in terms of pest and disease. In fact garlic is a key ingredient in many organic pest repellent recipes. One thing you do have to watch out for is fungus and nematodes. Plant in well-drained soil to minimize the risk. Also mulching appropriately in the fall will help to protect the cloves. As with most fungal infections there is not much to do but remove the infected plants. Do not put them on your compost pile! Nematodes and fungus can remain in the soil after the plants have been removed.
I have had a lot of success growing garlic in my raised beds. I mulch in the fall and then in the spring when the days start to get longer I use a hoop house to really give them a jump start on growth.