Just when you think the gardening year is over, it's time to plant garlic. The most flavorful member of the onion family is always the last veggie to go into the ground, because garlic cloves start their life cycle by developing roots in cold soil. Then, after at least two months of chilling, the little slivers of green that barely poked up their heads all winter will take off like green rockets. By summer, each little clove will grow into a 3-foot tall plant anchored by a beautiful bulb, ready to dig and cure.
Growing garlic is easy, and fresh garden-grown garlic is remarkably crisp and juicy, too. There are several types of garlic, and all of them change a little in response to the climate in which they are grown. So, if you save and replant the best and biggest cloves from your garden-grown garlic every year, it will improve with each passing season.
Types of Garlic
Familiar grocery store garlic is usually a softneck or "artichoke" type (Allium sativum sativum), most of which is grown in China, southeast of Bejing. The big bulbs may hold from 12 to 20 crowded cloves, with the largest cloves on the outside of the bulbs. Softneck garlic varieties grow best where winters are not extremely cold.
More cold-hardy hardneck garlic (Allium sativum ophioscordon) flowers with a flourish in late spring by developing a flower spike that curls around on itself. These "scapes" make great eating when harvested young and tender – a rare delicacy known only to gardeners. Gradually the base of the scape becomes as stiff as wood, so hardnecks cannot be braided.
Elephant garlic (Allium ameloprasum ) is actually a bulb-forming leek, but don't tell the thousands of gardeners who grow it for its giant, succulent cloves or for its huge pink lollipop of flowers. You can sacrifice the flowers if you'd rather eat the tender scape, and doing so will increase the size of the bulbs. Elephant garlic cloves planted in fall usually produce a half-pound bulb comprised of 4 to 5 big, mild-flavored cloves in early summer. Like softneck garlic, elephant garlic grows best in mild winter climates.
The Garlic Grower's Art
Garlic grows best in fertile, well drained soil with a near neutral pH. If your soil is clay, rake up raised rows or mounds for garlic to insure good drainage during the cold, clammy days of winter. Plant cloves 4 inches (10 cm) deep and 6 inches (15 cm) apart. As long as you set them with their pointed ends up, every clove you plant will grow. A light mulch of straw or shredded leaves, combined with casual hand weeding, guarantees a beautiful stand in spring.
Except for harvesting scapes from hardnecks and elephant garlic in late spring, the plants need no special care until it's time to gather the ripening bulbs. In late spring or early summer, yellowing of leaf tips means that the plant has shifted its priorities in favor of the bulb. Stop watering when 20 percent of plants' foliage has lost its green color, and start harvesting when about 40 percent of the leaves appear withered. Err on the side of earliness, because garlic bulbs left in the ground too long begin to push apart – a wise botanical strategy that helps to insure the success of the next generation, but makes for a shabby-looking crop.
Taking the Cure
While uncured garlic is infinitely edible, the bulk of the crop must be cured if it is to store well. As the bulbs cure, the skins over each clove will harden, and several layers of paper-thin wrapper "scales" will enclose them in a safe little package.
- To cure softnecks, hang them over a rafter individually or loosely bound into small bunches.
- Arrange hardnecks in a single layer on newspapers or screens, and gently turn them after a few days to help them dry evenly.
After a week, you can use pruning shears to cut off all but the top four inches from the tops of hardnecks and elephant garlic, but then let them continue curing for another 2 to 3 weeks. Softnecks are usually ready for braiding after 2 to 3 weeks of curing. Use pruning shears or utility scissors to trim most of the roots from cured garlic, clip off any remaining tops, and gently rub off bits of dried soil. Stored in mesh bags or baskets at cool room temperatures, garlic will keep in good condition for several months.
As I bring in my crop, I set aside the biggest, most perfect bulbs to use as my next year's planting stock, which saves time and money and helps me perpetuate a strain that has shown its satisfaction with the conditions in my garden. This is important, because once you grow garlic in your garden, you will never want to be without it.
By Barbara Pleasant