Gardeners just getting into garlic have some decisions to make: there are dozens of different varieties, and choosing which one to grow is difficult. But it’s hard to go wrong: experimenting with various varieties is likely to lead to a new appreciation of a crop you already love.
There are basically two main types of garlic: hardneck, sometimes called top-setting garlic, and softneck, sometimes called artichoke garlic.
— Gardeners in cold climates usually grow hardneck types, such as ‘German Red’, ‘Maiskij’, ‘Music’, and ‘Ajo Rojo’. These produce tight heads of garlic with up to about a dozen cloves around a central stalk. Garlic connoisseurs say that hardneck garlics have rich and complex flavors.
— Softneck garlic normally grows best in climates with hot summers and mild winters. ‘Nootka Rose’, ‘Viola Francese’, and ‘Inchelium Red’ are all softneck garlics, known for their productivity (some softneck types produce up to 40 cloves per bulb), for great traditional garlic flavor, and for their ability to keep for months.
If you live in an area where cool-season lawns (bluegrass, perennial rye, fine fescue) are the norm, hardneck garlic is a good first choice; where warm-season zoysia and bermuda lawns thrive, soft-neck garlics are more often planted in home gardens. In transitional zones, you can have success with either type — but, no matter where you live, if you’re not sure which varieties to try, the best idea is to plant some of each. Trying several different types all at once gives you a chance to find out which ones perform — and taste — best in your own climate and conditions. Garlic is an adaptable plant, and even the experts like to experiment.
Hardneck garlics are known for their extreme hardiness. In warm climates the heads of hardneck garlic may be smaller than they would be in climates with bone-chilling winters, but you’ll still get a good harvest, and interesting garlic flavors. To improve the yield, cut off the tall flower scapes after they begin to curl around on themselves. The scapes are delicious in salads or salad dressing, and they can even be pickled. When you cut off the scape, the plant puts its energy into producing garlic cloves instead of flowers.
Softneck garlic normally doesn’t produce a flower scape, which may account for its natural tendency to produce more cloves and to mature a little earlier than hardneck types. If you would like to make braid of garlic heads, grow a softneck type; ‘Siciliano’ and ‘Silver Rose’ are particularly good for making into pretty, long-lasting braids.
When it’s time to plant spring-flowering bulbs, it’s garlic-planting season, too. Plant in the fall for harvest the following spring, summer, or early fall. Like tulip and daffodil bulbs, garlic cloves should be planted with the pointed end up. Plant them three to four inches deep and six inches apart. That’s it: your garlic harvest is assured.