As far as I'm concerned, garlic gets the blue ribbon for growing your own. It's absurdly easy to plant and care for; it tastes great; it looks beautiful and it takes up so little ground that even those with very small gardens can raise enough to be self-sufficient in garlic for a good part of the year.
All you have to do is choose the right varieties; plant at the right time, in the right soil; then harvest when just right and store correctly.
If you look in a specialist catalog like the one at Gourmet Garlic Gardens, you'll find dozens of varieties of garlic listed. The folks at Filaree Farm, who offer a hundred, divide them into seven groups: Rocambole, Purple Stripe, Porcelain, Artichoke, Silverskin, Asiatic Turban and Creole. Gourmet GG says it's 10 groups because they divide Asiatic from Turban and add Marbled Purple Stripe and Glazed Purple Stripe to the list.
You see where this is going and you can see a lot more types of garlic on either of those websites, but for general purposes the most important difference is the one between softneck and hardneck.
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.
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.
Softnecks, the standard garlics of commerce, are the easiest to grow in regions where the weather is mild. They keep longer than hardnecks, but they are less hardy and more prone to make small, very strong-flavored cloves. Hardnecks do best where there is a real winter and are more vulnerable to splitting or simply refusing to produce when grown in warm climates.
Gardeners in most of the U.S. can try some of both. Southerners should probably stick to softnecks and northerners to the hard ones, but microclimates matter. 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.
Photo: Homegrown garlic, fresh out of the ground. Click the image for recipes that use garlic.
Growing garlic starts with knowing when to plant it. But planting itself is incredibly easy:
In mid-fall (around October 10 here in the Hudson Valley), plant garlic bulbs in loose, very fertile soil that's as weed-free as possible. Insert cloves root side down about 8 inches apart in all directions (if space is limited, you can squeeze by with 6), burying the tips about two inches down. Green shoots will come up; mulch around them with straw. 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. Keep them weeded. Water only if the soil is dry two or more inches down, being sure to avoid pouring water into the crowns of the plants.
Both of us spent most of our gardening lives knowing it was important to cut off the flowering scapes of hardneck garlic so they wouldn't draw energy that should be spent making bulbs. Then I read a story about some garlic growing guru on Long Island who said it didn't matter a whit and he never bothered.
Well, it isn't really much bother; tender young scapes are delicious and older ones that have made pretty curls look wonderful in the vase. But still...
So we set up an experiment, easy because we always plant a long narrow raised bed with two parallel rows. We allotted 30 spaces in each row and planted the same variety our saved household special in both of them.
When they were about half grown, no longer super tender but not yet curly and tough, we set about cutting garlic scapes, but only from one row of the plants. At harvest, after trimming,
The cut row yielded: 15 jumbo heads, 14 medium, 1 small, with 9 cracked and 1 half-rotted.
The uncut row yielded 12 jumbo, 16 medium and 2 small, with 3 that were cracked and 1 that was half-cracked.
So, very close to a tie except for one thing: we got 5 pounds out of the cut row, 6.5 pounds out of the one we left alone.
Photo at right: Garlic scapes at the edge of our Maine garden.
Tips for cutting garlic scapes:
1. No harm in taking a few to eat, but don't wait until they're large. Most of the scapes I see for sale are bigger than the four-to-six inches long they should be for best flavor and texture.
2. No harm in cutting some for the vase, either, but don't take them too soon. If you wait until the tops are well developed you'll get, depending on variety, 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.
Photo: Topsets from the '08 crop, photographed in May '09.
When to harvest garlic depends on the type. 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.
Photo: Garlic plants at optimum harvest stage
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. Rush this a bit if you're braiding garlic stems; 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. We leave it that way until we want 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 if you ask me you're asking for trouble by pushing it this way.
Photo: Garlic curing in the warm dry barn.
How to store garlic? 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. We keep our garlic stored in baskets in the cold closet (a.k.a. the inner cold room, an insulated section of the unheated sunporch next to Bill's office). Those less fortunate in the storage department can punt as necessary with good results as long as they avoid the refrigerator (excess cold leads to sprouting) and plastic bags (no air = high humidity = rot).
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