Fresh garlic is a staple in kitchens all across the world, and good cooks know that a hint of garlic can enhance many dishes. The pungent bulbs are incredibly easy to grow, and homegrown garlic will taste better and keep longer than the garlic that is sold in the supermarket.
Growing great garlic is not a difficult task. Fall is the best time to plant garlic. Garlic can also be planted in the spring, but spring-planted garlic will produce smaller bulbs than garlic that gets a head start in the fall. For best results, plant garlic cloves any time from about the first frost up until November. The garlic will begin growing roots right away and will be ready to begin growing again in the spring when the soil temperature reaches 40 degrees F.
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To plant garlic, break apart the bulbs into individual cloves. To grow larger garlic bulbs, plant only the largest cloves from each bulb. Larger cloves will produce the largest bulbs. Plant the cloves about two inches deep and four to six inches apart in rich, well-drained soil. Although the roots will start to grow over winter, you won't see any top growth until spring. Give the garlic a heavy blanket of mulch to protect the bulbs from heaving out of the soil over winter and to help keep down weeds.
Young garlic can be mistaken for grass when it begins to sprout, but a quick pinch of the leaves will release their aroma and eliminate any errors when weeding the patch.
Garlic is harvested in the summer after the bottom half of the leaves have begun to turn brown. Lift the bulbs from the ground with a spade rather than pulling them up by their tops. Allow the garlic to dry a bit by laying the bulbs, tops and all, on a screen or hanging them by their tops in a dry, airy place out of direct sunlight.
There are hundreds of varieties of garlic available to choose from, but three main types: softneck, hardneck and elephant garlic. The softneck varieties have a soft stem that makes them easy to braid. Softneck garlic bulbs have larger cloves on their outside layer with smaller cloves toward the center of the bulb. Softneck varieties generally store the best, up to nine months, and they also tend to have the strongest flavor. Softneck garlic is somewhat less winter hardy than hardneck varieties and may not be the best choice for gardeners in very cold climates. Softneck garlic is generally what you'll find for sale at the supermarket.
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Hardneck garlic has a stiff central stalk and the bulbs have fewer, but larger cloves than the softneck varieties. Hardneck garlic tends to be more winter hardy than softneck varieties but it doesn't store quite as well. Expect to store hardneck garlic for up to five or six months.
Hardneck garlic also sends up a scape, which is a stiff stem that forms a curlicue at the top with a small cluster of bulbils. These little bulbils look like tiny garlic cloves and they are also edible. You can cook with the bulbils, or if you're feeling adventurous they can also be planted to produce another garlic crop.
Growing great garlic from bulbils is rewarding but it also takes some time. Plant the bulbils in a bed by themselves where the plants will not be disturbed. It will take about three years to produce garlic bulbs from bulbils. Their first year, the plants will produce fine foliage that can easily be mistaken for grass. The second year the plants will be larger, but the bulb will consist of only one clove. If the plants become too crowded, thin them out in the fall to give each bulb room to grow. The third year the crop can be harvested.
The third type of garlic is elephant garlic. As the name implies, elephant garlic is much larger than other types of garlic. Elephant garlic is actually more closely related to leeks than it is to other types of garlic, and it has a mild flavor and large cloves that are easy to peel. When planting elephant garlic, leave 6 inches between the cloves and pinch off any flowers that the plant may produce.
Growing great garlic begins with planting great garlic. Planting garlic can be difficult to locate in some areas, so mail-order may be your best bet. There are any number of gardening catalogs that offer myriad wonderful varieties you can plant in your garden. You might also look for garlic for sale at farmers markets. The garlic sold in the produce section at a supermarket is meant to be eaten but it is not meant to be planted. Not only is commercially-grown garlic mundane compared to other varieties, but in many cases commercially-grown garlic has been chemically treated to prevent it from sprouting on the supermarket shelf. This will prevent the garlic from performing well in your garden and would make for a disappointing crop if it grows at all.
If you enjoy garlic, try planting some this fall. You'll be glad you did!