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Downright obsessed: That’s the best way to describe those who love and grow garlic (Allium sativum). Aside from chili peppers, few crops have such a following. Its fans attend garlic festivals, celebrate the annual harvest, and share recipes that maximize what makes garlic so addictive. Of course, its not without its haters. Nevertheless, garlic has a long and storied history punctuated with myriad uses, both medicinal and culinary. To harness these uses, first get familiar with the plant itself, and then choose your favorite cultivars to plant, grow, and harvest at home.
The Beginnings of Garlic
As a garden plant, garlic is surprisingly easy to grow and highly productive. It has the added benefit of growing when many beds lie fallow, as garlic cloves are planted in autumn but not harvested until early to midsummer. Garlic cultivars can grow soon after being planted in the autumn, although some wait until the beginning of spring. Garlic is also a stately plant in the garden, as every phase of its growth is attractive. Garlic scapes — or flower buds — must be removed before blooming, but are beautiful as they begin to appear in early summer. They have several uses in the kitchen, and make a fresh summer treat.
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You can find dozens of garlic cultivars suited for growing at home. Seed purveyors catalog their garlic cultivars by type — hardneck and softneck — and usually include the backstory of each cultivar, which is often as interesting as that of any heirloom tomato. The most difficult thing for gardeners to remember is exactly when to order garlic, because it’s shipped during their brief dormant period in late summer through early autumn, just before the ideal time for gardeners to sow. Upon arrival or purchase, open the boxes immediately and separate the cloves from the main bulb by carefully peeling each clove away from the central stalk just prior to planting.
Plenty of Garlic to Go Around
Garlic cultivars fall into two main groups: hardneck (A. sativum var. ophioscorodon) and softneck (A. sativum var. sativum). “Neck” refers to the central stem standing at the end of the season. Softneck types (or braiding garlic) allow you to braid the garlic, and are the most common type of garlic found in supermarkets. Softneck garlic doesn’t have a large central stem. Hardneck types (Rocambole or top-setting garlic) form a hard stem, and are popular with collectors and growers who believe these types have a stronger flavor, store better, and produce cloves that are easier to peel. Hardnecks still have their woody central stem, so peeling the cloves away from the stalk is easier. Each is worth growing if you’ve never grown garlic, as the crops are immensely useful in the kitchen, and it’s fun to have a variety of different types of garlic to experiment with.
Softneck garlic can be subdivided into two further type-groups — silverskin and artichoke. These definitions describe the overall bulb formation. Artichoke types are much larger and often more productive in the garden, and each head can form many cloves, yet the inner cloves can be smaller.
Most people are familiar with silverskin types, as these are the most common cultivar at local supermarkets. They typically form cloves that are white skinned and uniform in shape. These types also don’t form flower stalks, they way hardneck types do. The cloves can be harder to separate from the main head, but the cultivars are often more attractive and easier to braid. Silverskin softnecks are the better garlic cultivar for warmer climates. Purple-tinted cultivars from Eastern Europe tend to be the hottest and most flavorful, but it’s difficult to claim that one cultivar is any better than another.
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Outside of these two groups is a seemingly third group of garlic, commonly sold as elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum). It’s a completely different species from typical garlic plants, but it has a similar, mild garlic flavor. While not botanically a true garlic plant, it’s worth growing, if only for its spectacular beauty.
There are dozens and dozens of garlic cultivars, including fascinating heirlooms. Instead of listing the numerous cultivars, I’ll outline the various groups to set you on your journey. When searching for cultivars, note each one’s flavor profile, which can range from mild to scorching hot.
- Purple stripe group: Purple-striped cloves with strong garlic flavor. Midseason.
- Porcelain group: Large bulbs with pure white, papery skins. Late.
- Rocambole group: Cloves with loose, papery skins and brownish flesh. Midseason.
- Artichoke group: The most common garlic found in supermarkets. White skin. Early to midseason.
- Silverskin group: Long-keeping storage type with mild flavor. Late.
Garlic prefers a neutral soil pH, from 6.5 to 7.0., and is a heavy feeder. If you want large, healthy garlic bulbs, you’ll need fertilizer. The most common mistake home growers make is assuming that because garlic is a bulb, it doesn’t need food. Garlic might look completely healthy when aboveground, but what’s truly important is the bulb formation underground.
As with any bulb plant, garlic yields depend on high phosphorus in the soil. A fertilizer in the 5-10-5 range is good, as it offers an additional kick of nitrogen and potassium, along with additional phosphorus. While the nitrogen needs of garlic are higher than other vegetables, they’re not as extreme as that of onions. An organic source (preferably fish-based) is adequate. Look for 5-0-0 or higher.
Photo by Matt Mattus
In an 8-foot-long trench, loosen the soil 12 inches deep. Sprinkle 1/2 cup of fertilizer into the trench about 5 inches deep, and cover with an inch of soil. This holds the plants through winter by providing extra nutrients for deep roots.
While some plants sprout in autumn and others in spring, there’ll be plenty of root growth happening for all. As soon as the plants emerge in early spring, side-dress another 1/2 cup along each side, 3 inches from the emerging growth. Continue to add through midsummer, stopping a month before harvest (in July in most of North America), as an excess of nitrogen during bulb formation can negatively affect bulb size.
Traditionally, garlic is planted in the fall, which allows the bulbs to form roots and establish themselves, much like other autumn-planted bulbs. The ideal time in the autumn depends on where you live: In the Mid-Atlantic, this may be as early as mid-October, or as late as November. In cold climates, plant garlic just as the leaves are changing, but before hard frosts freeze the ground. Some garlic cultivars begin growing foliage almost immediately after planting, so don’t be alarmed to see green growth as early as November.
Garlic can be planted in the early spring. If you’re waiting until spring to plant, store the bulbs in a cool, dry environment that’s below 40 degrees Fahrenheit for at least four weeks prior. If vernalizing in a refrigerator, be careful, as anything producing ethylene gas, such as apples, can affect the bulbs’ ability to sprout. Garlic crops planted in spring are slower to emerge, delaying harvest by a couple of weeks.
Maintenance & Harvesting
Mulch your garlic plants through winter, but stop once spring arrives. Moisture is essential, and a constant supply ensures that you get a premium yield of big garlic heads. Water early in the day, or use a drip irrigation system to help maintain consistency. When garlic scapes appear in early summer, cut or snap them off to allow the garlic plant to focus on forming bulbs. The scapes are beautiful, but shouldn’t be allowed to bloom. Snap them off just as they’re developing flower buds.
Photo by Matt Mattus
When the tops begin to fade in midsummer, your garlic is ready to harvest. Dig plants while some green leaves remain on the plant. While you may be tempted to pull garlic from the soil, experienced growers dig garlic just as the bottom 1/2 of the leaves start to fade, rather than when the plant is completely dried out. Leaving plants in the soil too long is a common error; the problem is largely cosmetic, but waiting too long ruins your chances for pure white, unblemished skins.
If the weather has been exceptionally dry, water the bed deeply a day before digging to help plump up the garlic. The bulbs have lush root systems when first dug out of the ground — this is natural. Don’t trim the tops or roots until the plants have been curing and drying for a month. Don’t rinse the bulbs after pulling — let them dry in open shade until evening, then bring them indoors to a warm, dry spot and allow them to cure for a couple of months. Take great care not to damage the bulbs, as it’ll cause them to decay. Cut the hard stems to half their length for the first month of drying, and then cut them shorter if you wish.
Matt Mattus is a third generation gardener of his family property in Massachusetts. He is also the author of the popular gardening blog, Growing with Plants. This is excerpted from his book, Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening (Cool Springs Press).