Hardnecks vs Softnecks
Generally speaking, garlic is first categorized as either hardnecks or softnecks. Hardnecks have more intense flavors--they are more closely related to their wild ancestors, but generally have lesser storage capabilities, while softnecks are excellent "keepers" but often exhibit a milder flavor. (Of course there will be exceptions). Hardnecks most notable trait is the stiff center stalk (called the scape) with the “flower” head that shoots up from the center of the plant mid summer. Snip these off at the base of the stalk while they are young; awesome culinary uses. Oh, and by the way, elephant garlic is not a true garlic, it’s a leek.
There are three main subdivisions of hardnecks ( rocambole, porcelain, and purple stripe ) and two of softnecks ( artichoke and silverskin ); some have further subdivisions. We have compiled their differences in our VARIETY COMPARISON CHART. We have also kept these Garlic Basics to just that, “basics”. There is a ton of technical information out there for those that want to indulge themselves in the really scientific stuff. There are also some excellent books out there that are worthy of reference material like ‘The Complete Book Of Garlic’ by Ted Jordan Meredith, Timber Press and Ron Engeland’s 'Growing Great Garlic’, Filaree Productions.
Under good storage conditions, which are not hard to achieve (room temperature and medium to low humidity), one can hope for these results:
Asiatic and Turban types: a few months
Rocambole and Purple Stripe types: 6 months
Porcelain and Artichoke types: 8 to 10 months
Silverskin (including Creole) types: up to a full year
Since life is too short, we believe the Rocamboles, like dessert, should always be eaten first.
The usual advice to gardeners is to plant fall garlic soon after the first major frost of the year, usually between mid-October and late November depending on your local climate. Garlic needs a period of vernalization (period of cold dormancy) to enable clove formation. Without it, you will probably end up with garlic ‘rounds’ (like an onion).
Garlic prefers a sunny spot. The soil should be enriched with lots of compost and organic matter. Garlic does not do well in really sandy or heavy clay soils. Your best soil should be loamy, and well drained. Garlic doesn’t like wet feet.
While one can add soil amendments, there's usually little one can do about excesses already present. Still, research has shown that high phosphorous levels can decrease plant height, average bulb weight, and usable yield, so keep that in mind.
Choosing Seed Stock
There is no difference between culinary or table stock and planting (seed stock) other than size. It all comes out of the same row in the field. As the old adage goes “plant large cloves, get large bulbs; plant small cloves, get small bulbs. We like to use 1 ¾” to 2” bulbs for seed stock as this gives us more bang for the buck. These mid size bulbs yield more cloves per pound. We grade our garlic as everything smaller than 2” as culinary and everything 2” or larger as seed grade. There are exceptions, as some varieties naturally grow smaller so grading will be proportional.
For hardneck varieties, plant individual cloves with the root end down - be sure you don't set them upside-down! The pointed end goes up--the flat end goes down! Softnecks are not as critical and may be placed horizontally. It’s the stiff center stalk that you eventually want pointed up towards the sun, Planted upside down and this scape has to work harder to upright while growing. Set them so you can cover with about two inches of soil. Mulching them as soon as they are planted, using some loose stuff that the emerging stalks can easily penetrate (straw is excellent) will help keep moisture in during the summer and weeds to a minimum. Garlic doesn’t like crowds and we have found planting a minimum of 6”apart.
Garlic is pretty winter hardy, but it can be damaged by a combination of very cold temperatures and a thin snow cover. Here is where your mulching will come in handy.
In the spring, your garlic will send up its leaves through the mulch. When those emerge, begin watering them, more or less like any garden green. If you can apply some extra nitrogen at this time, so much the better. We begin a foliar spray program using fish emulsion.
Here in zone 5 in Western New York State, on the summer solstice in mid June, the garlic finishes its leaf growth and begins the bulb formation. Time to cut out the nitrogen and cut back some on the watering.
Vital note! Hardneck types will send up a flower stalk sometime around early June: keep a close eye on it. These stalks are called garlic scapes and they are delicious. Scapes are a culinary delight and can be sauteed with evoo and sea salt, ground for pesto or dried for later use. Google garlic scapes for more. When the scapes are young and have curled, you want to cut or snap the stalks off at the base of the scape, being careful not to damage the leaves. You can leave your scapes on and allow to grow bulbils in the paper like "flower" up towards the end but you'll generally end up with smaller garlic bulbs come harvest time. The bulbils can be planted but they will take several seasons to size up into cloved bulbs.
As your anticipated harvest time approaches, keep watering to a minimum: the topsoil should not be really wet, or the bulbs may mold, or at least stain.
As harvest draws close, the leaves will start turning from green to brown from the bottom of the plant up. Some browning of leaf tips during he season is normal. Opinions vary but expert consensus seems to be soon after half or so of the leaves have gone brown. Do not wait for most or all of the leaves to go brown. Waiting will allow the bulbs to mature too much, resulting in bulbs splitting and shortened storage life.
Harvest by simply and carefully spading the bulbs out of the ground. Do not leave freshly dug bulbs in direct sunlight for more than a very few minutes--they will more or less “cook”. Hang dug bulbs in clusters of 8 to 10 bulbs tied together with leaves and roots intact out of direct sunlight, open and airy location and out of the elements such as a shed or barn. Allow them to cure for at least 3 weeks or more. When curing is satisfactorily complete, the neck of the plant can be cut about ½ inch above the bulb without any moisture showing (if you try it and detect moisture, curing is not complete). Cured garlic can be neck and root trimmed and stored in hanging net bags (like onions).
Odds and Ends
Modern garlics are of only two species: Allium ophioscorodon, the "hardnecks", which produce a flower stalk as did their wild ancestors; and A. sativum, the softnecks, which usually do not produce a flower stalk.
Hardnecks, left to their own devices, will produce small bulbils at the ends of their stalks and little bulbs; they must have the flower stalk removed to bulb up properly. Softnecks are non-bolting garlics that freely produce bulbs instead of flowers. (This simplified view has complicating exceptions.)
The Allium genus is part of the Liliaceae, the lily family--which includes onions, leeks, and asparagus among its more useful edible members.