Garlic is a great introduction to growing your own. It’s absurdly easy to plant and care for, tastes great, looks beautiful and it takes up very little ground. Your job is to choose the right variety, plant it at the right time in the right soil, harvest, cure and store!
1. Choosing Types of Garlic
There are dozens of varieties of garlic, commonly divided into several groups: Rocambole, Purple Stripe, Porcelain, Artichoke, Silverskin, Asiatic Turban and Creole. This is just a basic list; the most important difference is choosing between softneck and hardneck varieties.
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. These are the standard garlics of commerce, and are the easiest to grow in mild-weather regions. They keep longer than hardnecks, but are less hardy. They are prone to make small, very strong-flavored cloves.
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. They do best where there is a real winter, as they are more vulnerable to splitting–or simply refusing to produce–when grown in warmer climates.
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.
2. Planting Garlic
Plant your garlic in mid-fall, in loose, very fertile soil that’s as weed-free as possible. Insert cloves root side down about 6-8 inches apart in all directions, burying the tips about two inches down. When green shoots come up, mulch around them with straw. If your region sees very low temperatures in the winter, a hard freeze will come and kill the shoots. Draw the mulch over the whole bed. In spring, pull the mulch back when the new shoots emerge. Give them a shot of mixed fish emulsion and liquid seaweed, and keep them weeded. Water your garlic only if the soil is dry two or more inches down, and be sure to avoid pouring water into the crowns of the plants.
3. Cutting Garlic Scapes
It really isn’t necessary to cut the flowering scapes off hardneck garlic (theory being they won’t draw energy that should be spent making bulbs); your yield will be about the same either way. Tender young scapes are delicious and older ones that have made pretty curls look wonderful in a vase.
Here are some tips for cutting garlic scapes:
- Don’t wait until they’re large. Scapes should be about four-to-six inches for best flavor and texture.
- Cutting some for the vase is wonderful, but don’t take them too soon. If you wait until the tops are well developed you’ll get either a head of tiny garlic grains that can be used whole and unpeeled in place of minced garlic (for a week or two, after which the skins toughen), or a clump of small round bulbs, called topsets, that can be stored all winter long and then planted close together in early spring to produce the garlic equivalent of scallions.
4. Harvesting Garlic
When to harvest your garlic depends on the type you planted. Garlic varieties are divided into early, midseason and late, but what that means depends not only on your climate zone but also on your climate in the growing year. Heat speeds ‘em up, cold slows ‘em down, and although the harvest window is wide if you plan to eat the garlic fresh, it’s narrow if you want to ensure maximum storage life. The bulbs are ready when most of the lower leaves have browned. The upper ones will still be green. If you’ve ever grown onions, it’s easy to assume garlic is the same and you should wait until all the leaves have fallen over. BAD IDEA! By the time all the leaves are dead the bulbs will have split; they won’t have the leaf sheathes they need to form wrappers and it’s likely fungus disease will have found a way in. “Lift the bulbs” is usually used to describe moving things like daffodils, but it’s also a good way to think about harvesting garlic. Those heads are more delicate than they seem and any cut or bruise will shorten storage life. Try to choose an overcast day when the soil is dry. Loosen the soil with a digging fork, inserting it well away from the heads, then lift them out of the row and place them in a flat carrier.
5. Curing Garlic
Let the whole plants dry in a single layer somewhere out of the sun where it’s warm but not hot. When the outer skin is papery, brush off as much dirt as possible and clip the roots. Move this process up a bit if you’re braiding garlic stems, because if you wait until they’re completely dry, they tend to crack and break.
The finished garlic will still be on the dirty side compared to anything commercial. Leave it that way until you’re ready to use it because further cleanup can shorten storage life. If you can’t bear the way it looks, try removing the outer layer of wrapper. You can wash the bulbs if you must and should be ok as long as they dry quickly and thoroughly, but you’re probably asking for trouble by pushing it this way.
6. Storing Garlic
Now that you’ve successfully harvested your garlic, how do you store it? The at-home ideal for storing garlic is between 55 and 70 degrees, with moderate humidity and good air circulation, in the light but out of the sun. Avoid the refrigerator (excess cold leads to sprouting) and plastic bags (no air = high humidity = rot). Oh, and don’t forget to cook with it!