A lot of gardeners fail with garlic. I used to be one of them, but found the secret to growing amazing garlic at home is just timing.
Garlic must be planted in fall, not spring, and knowing when to sow the bulbs of seed garlic is the key to success. Emerging garlics overwinter in the ground and then begin their growth in earnest during spring. Harvest usually takes place the July following your fall planting.
The rest: order seed garlic as soon as possible in August or September (supplies are always tight, and garden centers often don't carry garlic), and prepare a rich and deeply worked bed as you wait for the bulbs to arrive. Plant before a hard frost sets in; this ranges from late September in the far north, October in middle climates, and into December or January in the south. Each clove (seed) of garlic you plant will yield a whole head next year.
It's a good idea to mulch young garlic heavily with straw over the winter, to keep it from heaving out of frozen ground, and then to remove the mulch and cultivate the soil lightly when spring heats up. Provide plenty of water in early summer.
After harvesting heads of ripe garlic, (it's time to pick when the lower leaves turn brown) dry them on sheets of paper outdoors in the shade before storing them in a cool, dry cupboard. Never wash the dirt off garlic with water; the skins should remain dry.
I always try to order my seed garlic from a wonderful seed company right in my own town, called Sow True Seed, although Seed Savers Exchange also has excellent online garlic resources.
Beauty and the Beast
Homegrown garlic cloves have an especially deep, pungent, almost oily flavor; a moistness that outshines any store-bought garlic. Your garlic has never been shipped across the country and stored for months and months in a refrigerator, perhaps handled carelessly. Your garlic cloves are big and plump, not small and dried up.
Garlic is the launching pad for so many dishes over the worldwide culinary spectrum. Not for the faint of palate, garlic can linger in the mouth and on the breath for a long time. With its strength on the tongue comes strength as a digestive, an antibiotic, a curative, even a natural bug repellent.
For garlic is more than just a tasty bulb. As it grows in the garden among other vegetables, garlic can keep pests at bay and foster a healthy environment for its neighbors. The bulblets, pulverized and combined with water as the basis for garden spray, can be used as a topical application on leaves that seem plagued with bugs.
Springtime beauty is an unexpected bonus with garlic, as the hardneck type of bulb produces lovely looping stalks, called scapes, which carry the developing buds of garlic flowers.
Now, garlic is a bit complicated. There are two main types, called hardneck and softneck, and those terms are descriptive of the central stalk of the garlic clove. Which to use? Well, you choose…either or both.
Hardneck garlics are recommended for colder northern climates; they are tough, and they make those pretty scapes, which are a delicacy all their own. The individual cloves of hardneck garlic are larger than softneck, and there are fewer of them per head.
Softneck garlics grow well in warmer southern climates. They don't make the scapes, and their cloves are smaller, but they do store better over time. It's important for both hardneck and softneck garlics that you don't let them flower fully, as that saps energy from the tasty bulbs we love to eat.
Since I live in a cooler, high-elevation southern climate, in western North Carolina, I decided to try both types, and Sow True Seed does offer a sample pack. They grew equally well, and the individual cloves of the hardneck garlic were huge!
And elephant garlic is bigger still.
Nan K. Chase is the author of Eat Your Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape. She grows her garlic (and leeks) at home in Asheville, N.C.