As far as I’m concerned, garlic gets the blue ribbon for growing your own. It’s absurdly easy to plant and care for; it tastes great; it looks beautiful and it takes up so little ground that even those with very small gardens can raise enough to be self-sufficient in garlic for a good part of the year.
All you have to do is choose the right varieties; plant at the right time, in the right soil; then harvest when just right and store correctly.
1. Choosing Types of Garlic
If you look in a specialist catalog like the one at Gourmet Garlic Gardens, you’ll find dozens of varieties of garlic listed. The folks at Filaree Farm, who offer a hundred, divide them into seven groups: Rocambole, Purple Stripe, Porcelain, Artichoke, Silverskin, Asiatic Turban and Creole. Gourmet GG says it’s 10 groups because they divide Asiatic from Turban and add Marbled Purple Stripe and Glazed Purple Stripe to the list.
You see where this is going and you can see a lot more types of garlic on either of those websites, but for general purposes the most important difference is the one between softneck and hardneck.
Softnecks are so called because the whole green plant dies down to pliancy, leaving nothing but the bulb and flexible stems that are easy to braid.
Hardnecks have a stiff stem in the center that terminates in a beautiful flower or cluster of little bulbs then dries to a rigid stick that makes braiding impossible.
Softnecks, the standard garlics of commerce, are the easiest to grow in regions where the weather is mild. They keep longer than hardnecks, but they are less hardy and more prone to make small, very strong-flavored cloves. Hardnecks do best where there is a real winter and are more vulnerable to splitting or simply refusing to produce when grown in warm climates.
Gardeners in most of the U.S. can try some of both. Southerners should probably stick to softnecks and northerners to the hard ones, but microclimates matter. Specialty sellers will suggest best bets based on your climate and tastes, and of course it’s wise to get some seed stock from your local farmers’ market: whatever it is, it’s growing where you are.
Photo: Homegrown garlic, fresh out of the ground. Click the image for recipes that use garlic.