Easy to grow and full of flavor, garlic is a must-have in the vegetable garden. The key is to treat it as a bulb. Like tulips, daffodils, and other spring-flowering bulbs, garlic is best planted in fall when the cool weather will help it develop foliage and a strong root system. The bulb enlarges in warm weather the following spring and summer.
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Types of Garlic
There are three common types of garlic: hardneck (or stiffneck), softneck, and elephant garlic.
Hardneck garlic features a single ring of four to 10 cloves around a central stem that sends up a curly flower stalk (called a scape) tipped with showy pinkish-white blossoms. The most cold-hardy of all garlics, hardneck has a milder flavor than softneck garlic.
Softneck garlic got its name because the garlic necks stay soft at harvest time and can be braided. The bulb produces 10 to 20 strongly flavored cloves. It's often sold in supermarkets because it has a long shelf life.
Elephant garlic produces a large bulb that typically includes four big cloves. Elephant garlic cloves' milder flavor resembles that of an onion.
Garlic Care Must-Knows
Garlic grows best in full sun and fertile, well-drained soil. Choose a planting site that is weed-free and has not hosted other onion family crops within the last three years. Good drainage is essential to prevent garlic bulbs and/or roots from rotting. If the soil drains poorly, plant garlic in a raised bed.
Plant garlic in fall after the soil has cooled from summer's heat but before it freezes. (The bulbs can be planted in early spring, too, but fall plantings generate larger bulbs for harvest.) You may be tempted to plant bulbs purchased at the supermarket, but fight that urge. That garlic is often not well-suited for growing conditions in your garden, or it may carry diseases or have been treated to discourage sprouting.
Break bulbs apart at planting time and plant the individual cloves—tips pointing up—about 2 inches deep and 4 to 6 inches apart in rows that are 15 to 24 inches apart. Plant elephant garlic varieties about 3 inches deep and 8 to 12 inches apart. Cover garlic cloves with a 4- to 6-inch layer of mulch to provide winter insulation. Water cloves well, and its roots will begin to grow even though top growth may not be visible. Remove most of the mulch in spring, leaving a thin layer to suppress weeds.
Tips for Harvesting Garlic
It can be tricky to know when garlic is ready to harvest. Don't guess or rely on the leaf color to tell if cloves are mature. Instead, check by pulling up a bulb in mid- to late June—earlier in warm climates and later in cold climates. Harvest garlic when the head has plump cloves and the skin covering the outside of the bulbs is thick, dry, and papery.
After digging up the bulbs, cure them before placing them in long-term storage. Leave stalks and roots on the bulbs, but brush off any dirt. Place them in a shady, warm, dry, and well-ventilated area for a few weeks. Then remove the dried stalks and roots and further clean the bulbs by removing outer skins, if desired, without exposing any of the cloves underneath. Store bulbs in a dark, dry, well-ventilated place and protect from high humidity and freezing. You can store softneck garlic for up to eight months, and hardneck garlic for up to four months.
More Varieties of Garlic
'New York White' garlic
Allium sativum 'New York White' is also called 'Polish White'. It's a hardy, disease-resistant variety for northern regions.
'Russian Red' garlic
This variety of Allium is a hardneck type with purple stripes on its cloves. It is exceptionally winter hardy.
'Silver White' garlic
This Allium cultivar is a softneck type for warm climates. It produces easy-to-peel white bulbs.