Decades ago, the jar of garlic powder—a staple in my kitchen at the time—ran empty, so I improvised by mixing freshly minced garlic with softened butter. The difference was immediately discernable—deep, rich and complex, with a distinctive flavor and freshness. Fresh garlic became a kitchen and garden standard that day, and I’ve never looked back.
Know Your Type
Garlic comprises two main categories: hardnecks and softnecks. (Elephant garlic is actually a type of leek.) Hardnecks, which thrive where winters are cold, are believed to be the original descendants from wild garlic, sending up a flower stalk as they mature. The cloves are typically larger, more flavorful, and easier to peel than softnecks.
A few choice varieties include ‘German Red’, with a hot and spicy flavor favored by chefs; ‘Northern White’, an extremely winter-hardy variety ideal for baking; ‘Spanish Roja’, with rich, spicy true garlic flavor; ‘Russian Red’, one of the best storing hardnecks; and ‘Purple Italian Easy Peel’, with a rich zesty flavor and sweet aftertaste.
Softnecks grow well in a wide range of climates and growing conditions. Tight skins make them harder to peel, but also make them good for long storage. Given the right conditions, many softneck varieties can easily keep for up to a year. Due to their pliable stems, softnecks are always the best choice when you want to grow garlic for braiding.
Softneck ‘Inchelium Red’ stores for up to nine months, and is tops for its mild lingering flavor that sharpens with storage. The strong and pungent flavor of ‘Italian Late’ keeps well in storage, and some growers and crafters say this variety is one of the best for braiding. ‘Oregon Blue’ is a highly productive Northwest heirloom with a hot, spirited flavor. Extra-early maturing ‘Chinese Pink’ offers fine quality cloves with a nice mellow flavor.
Garlic is easily grown in most any climate. For the plumpest and tastiest bulbs, grow garlic in a sunny location in loose, fertile and evenly moist soil that’s well-drained. Soggy soil is a sure invite for disease and rot, which is why I always grow garlic in raised beds.
One of the tricks of the trade is to incorporate lots of organic matter, such as rotted manure, compost, aged sawdust, dried grass clippings or shredded leaves. The added organic matter not only helps lighten the soil and increase numbers of beneficial microorganisms and other soil critters, it also helps regulate soil sulfur levels, thereby improving garlic’s taste.
Fertile soil is another flavor enhancer. Garlic needs a steady supply of nutrients: nitrogen for leaf growth, and potassium and phosphorus for bulb and root development. (Before planting, some growers dust their garlic cloves with wood ash for potassium, or bone meal for phosphorus.) Feeding these favorite nutrients via a 1- to 2-inch layer of aged manure (such as rabbit or sheep) is especially vital as leaf growth resumes in early spring.
Trace minerals also are essential. Good natural sources include rock dust, kelp meal, lava sand and azomite. Or you can foliar spray with fish fertilizer or a liquid seaweed mix, applied every two weeks in spring and continuing until bulbs begin to form.
If you already have fertile soil, a thin layer of compost or well-aged manure at planting time will usually suffice. But if the leaves look yellowish come early spring, then give your garlic a boost by side-dressing with a natural high-nitrogen source such as fish meal, feather meal or aged manure.
A bulb (head) of garlic consists of many individual cloves. Choose the largest, firmest heads, then use only the largest outer cloves for planting in order to produce the biggest bulbs. Save the rest of the head for cooking. You can purchase planting stock from a local grower, farmers’ market, mail-order source or specialty grower.
The best time to plant garlic is in the fall, about four to six weeks before the ground freezes. (Typically late September through October in the North; November through January in the South.) Plant individual unpeeled cloves flat end down and pointed tip up, about 4 to 8 inches apart. Set each clove about 2 inches deep in mild-winter areas, and up to 4 inches deep in cold-winter climates.
After planting, cover the bed with organic mulch, such as straw, grass clippings and shredded leaves, or compost. Several inches of a loose straw mulch works especially well for protecting garlic beds in winter. A blanket of mulch also helps keep soil moisture more even—something garlic thrives on, especially if you want bigger bulbs. But for firm heads and longer storage, it’s best to cease watering once leaves begin to brown in summer, which is about the last two to three weeks before harvest.
Enjoying the Harvest
Garlic is ready to harvest from June to August, depending on the variety and growing climate. The bulbs and leaves are telltale indicators. Bulbs are ready to harvest after roughly 50 percent of the leaves have turned yellow and withered. The bulb also should be full with bulging cloves, and the somewhat dry outer papery wrapper still intact. (Bulbs with cloves that have pushed their way through the papery skin are still harvestable, but at this stage they won’t store as long.) To harvest, carefully dig up the bulbs, roots and all, leaving the stem attached.
After the harvest, garlic needs to be “seasoned”—a process known as curing—for two to six weeks, depending on the weather and drying area. Any dry, airy and shady location will do. Simply bundle garlic by their stems in groups of 10 to 20 and hang to dry; or individually lay bulbs flat on stacked screens, allowing space between bulbs.
Once garlic has cured, trim the roots and cut the stem to within 1 inch of the bulb. Store bulbs in a cool (45 to 60 degrees), dry and well-ventilated area. Leave the cloves intact within the bulb until you are ready to use them. Properly cured, hardneck varieties can keep from four to six months; softneck varieties can be stored from six to 12 months.
Contributing Editor Kris Wetherbee tends her herbs in western Oregon.