As fall approaches, thoughts turn to garlic. Growing your own garlic is easy and the cloves are tastier than what you purchase in a grocery store. Typically, garlic is planted in October in the Washington DC metro area but I have planted as late as Thanksgiving Day. You may find “seed” stock (the garlic you buy to plant, not the garlic you buy in a grocery store to eat) at independent garden centers, farmers markets, online seed companies or specialty garlic companies. If garlic at your favorite seed company is sold out, try a company that specializes in garlic because they have more inventory.
There are about 200 garlic names so it may be hard to choose. In this area, we can grow both “softneck” and “hardneck” types. The “neck” is the woody central area of the bulb where the flowering stalk or scape emerges the following spring. Softnecks do not produce the scape while hardnecks produce the scape, which some people like to cut and cook even though this would result in a smaller bulb. Because softnecks do not have this woody stem, they are easy to braid for storage. Softnecks mature earlier and have a longer storage life than hardnecks. Softnecks produce large bulbs with the highest number of cloves in various size. These are not easy to peel when you want to use them in the kitchen but eventually, as months pass, they become easier. Hardnecks have less number of cloves but larger and of uniform size, arranged in a single layer around the stalk, and are easy to peel.
The ease of peeling is related to storage. If the clove is easy to peel it is because the peeling is not on tightly hence air can enter and degrade the clove faster. If it is hard to peel, it is because the peeling or wrapper is on so tightly that air cannot enter and cause the clove to dry out. However, as months pass, moisture is lost, the wrapper loosens a little, and the cloves become easier to peel.
Within softnecks (Allium sativum spp. sativum), there are the artichokes (three to five overlapping layers of cloves in various sizes that create a bumpy appearance) and the silverskins with smooth white scales, tightly wrapped cloves, and uniform bulb sizes (most popular for braiding). These store for 8 months.
Within the hardnecks (Allium sativum spp. ophioscorodon) there are rocambole (large, easy to peel cloves but last 4 months), porcelain (largest but few cloves, longest shelf life of the hardnecks), and purple stripe (bright purple streaks and blotches). These store for 4 months.
After selecting if you want a hardneck or softneck, determine your preference for heat and flavor. It may be helpful to read catalog descriptions such as “sweet and mild flavor when cooked,” “white hot” garlic, “high sugar content, good for roasting,” “rich, sweet and caramel-like when roasted,” or “pleasant flavor with a mild spicy zing.”
Regardless of the type, all garlic is planted, harvested, and cured the same way. Garlic needs rich, well-drained soil. You may have to amend clay soil with organic matter or compost. Garlic can be grown in a garden bed, raised bed, or container as long as the depth is at least 8 inches, preferably 12 inches. Large fabric containers or whisky barrels are possibilities.
Usually the bulb is harvested in June or July when the rest of the garden is in full swing so think of what will replace that gap in the garden. For example, in the fall, you can insert cloves along the perimeter of a large container. In the summer, you can either harvest the garlic and plant summer annuals or you can plant annuals in the late spring and still pull the garlic in the summer and not disrupt the annuals. I grow my summer squash in Earthboxes and pull them out in October when they are clearly past their prime. In their place, I insert the garlic cloves. Next summer, I harvest the garlic and plant new summer squash seeds. I plant the summer squash later than usual to prevent squash vine borer.
Because the plants are tall and narrow, you can fit them in a row in front of your flower bed or in front of shrubs and harvesting should not create an unsightly gap. Many gardeners grow garlic with their rose bushes. It is said that garlic helps keep roses pest and disease free and they do not compete or crowd out roses.
Garlic is a heavy feeder. Depending on where you will plant you may want to amend with compost or manure first in the fall. In the spring, apply nitrogen via bloodmeal, compost tea, or cottonseed meal in April and May.
Garlic also needs full sun. Our rainfall should be sufficient but know that dry soil will make smaller bulbs and do not water 2 weeks prior to harvesting. The area should be kept weed free. Some gardeners mulch to prevent weeds and to prevent frost heaving.
To plant, gently separate the cloves and examine each to make sure it is healthy. Don’t peel each clove but if one is discolored or mushy, throw it away. Plant only healthy cloves, bottom down, pointed end up, about 2 inches deep. Space about 6 inches apart. Large cloves will create large bulbs. The clove will start to grow in the fall and you should see foliage in the fall that will remain during the winter. In the spring, the foliage will continue to grow (which you will be feeding with fertilizer).
If you planted hardnecks, you will see the scapes rise and curl in late spring. Many gardeners cut and eat scapes but this will result in smaller garlic bulbs. If you want larger bulbs, cut the scapes off when they first emerge. Softnecks do not produce scapes.
Harvest the bulbs when half of the leaves have turned yellow or brown and half are still green. For hardnecks this is usually 9 months after planting so will be in June or July. For softnecks, this is earlier, because they grow faster. Harvest on a dry, sunny day. Gently loosen the area surrounding the bulbs with a trowel if in a container or a gardening fork if in a bed and use your hands to bring out the bulbs. The bulbs should not get pierced or damaged.
Although bulbs can be eaten “fresh” from the ground, the best flavor is obtained from cured bulbs. Curing is the partial drying process to remove the water content from the bulbs so they do not rot or mold in storage. By removing as much moisture as possible, the bulb can remain in its state for a long period of time so you can use the cloves whenever you need them in the kitchen.
To cure, place the garlic bulbs in a shaded, warm, dry area with good air circulation. Do not leave them out in direct sunlight and don’t wash with a hose. Some people like to spread them out on a tray or large screen and some like to tie in a bunch and hang in a tool shed or garage. If you are hanging in your basement be aware of humidity, you may need to turn on a fan. Leave them alone for a month.
Afterwards, you can either clean them up by cutting back the stalks (unless you want to braid softnecks) and scrub off excess dirt with a rag or you can literally leave as is in a paper bag, dirt and all, until you are ready to cook with them. Store in a garage or root cellar but you may want to hang in a mesh bag to prevent mice damage. Don’t store them in the refrigerator. Another way to store garlic is to peel the cloves, swirl in a bowl with a little olive oil, and pack in freezer Ziploc bags. Label the bags and place in the freezer. Or make a garlic paste with a little olive oil and freeze the paste.
Gardeners may think of garlic as a vegetable but garlic also is a culinary and medicinal herb. The International Herb Association designated garlic as the 2004 Herb of the Year (they still have an e-book on their website for sale). The Herb Society of America has a downloadable, 54-page document on garlic.
Although garlic is called the stinky rose, it is odorless until you cut into a clove. When a garlic clove is cut, alliin, an odorless sulfur-containing amino acid derivative, reacts with the enzyme alliinase to form allicin and other sulfur compounds. Allicin breaks down into diallyl disulfide, which creates the garlic odor. Allicin is responsible for many of garlic’s health benefits including antioxidant, antimicrobial, cholesterol-lowering and blood-thinning properties.
Garlic is used in so many dishes that it would be impossible to address recipes here in this article so I have listed books about growing and cooking with garlic. Here is a list of seed companies but if they are sold out, look for companies that specialize in garlic such as Filaree Garlic Farm, Mad River Garlic Growers, the Garlic Store, Keene Garlic, Hood River Garlic, and BJ Gourmet Garlic Farm. Order your garlic today, it is the easiest edible you can grow for the greatest flavor you can add to your meals.
Garlic is Life by Chester Aaron
The Complete Book of Garlic: A guide for Gardeners, Growers, and Serious Cooks by Ted Jordan Meredith
Garlic: Nature’s Original Remedy by Stephen Fulder and John Blackwood
The Complete Garlic Lovers’ Cookbook by Gilroy Garlic Festival Staff
All photos are courtesy of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.