As mentioned previously, there are three main categories of garlic: hardneck (also called turban), softneck (also called artichoke or silverskin), and Creole. Not only are they typically grown in different climates, but they also exhibit differences in look and flavor. Also, garlic will be labeled "Heirloom" if it has been around for fifty or more years and will be labeled "Gourmet" if the size/color/taste will be exceptional. Believe it or not, just as there are wine experts that judge and rate wine, there are garlic experts that do the same. Garlic is rated on a scale of 1 to 10 and is rated on its garlickiness (flavor) and pungency (heat). A garlic with a rating of 1/1 would be extremely mild. One rated at 10/10 would be extremely garlicky and hot. I have never seen either the extremely low or the extremely high ratings.
For many decades, when you bought garlic in a grocery store it probably would have been California Early or California Late garlic. You probably have guessed that this garlic came from California. It was more than likely grown near Gilroy, CA. When you drive into Gilroy you will see a huge sign that says "Gilroy - Garlic Capitol of the World." Nowadays, most of the garlic found in the grocery store will be from China and generally will be an unknown variety. China now grows more and exports more garlic (by far) than does California. The typical grocery store garlic would be rated around 3/3.
Speaking of typical grocery store garlic, have you ever purchased Elephant Garlic? If so, you might have wondered why it was so mild. Elephant garlic is not even a garlic, it is a leek, more closely related to the onion than the garlic. There are many heirloom, gourmet garlic varieties with bulbs that are about the same size as the elephant garlic.
Just before planting, garlic bulbs would be divided into single cloves and those cloves would be planted in mid-September to early October in colder climates and in mid-October to early December in warmer climates. Some people believe that soaking those cloves in water overnight just before planting will enable them to sprout more quickly. I have never done this, so I don't know whether there is any validity to this practice. I plant my garlic approximately 2-3" deep and space the cloves on a 4" center. I want enough room between the cloves for the bulbs to form without touching the adjacent bulbs. Because I have lots of oak trees and thus lots of leaves in the fall, I cover all of my garlic with 4-6" of leaves. Because of their insulation value, these leaves help protect my garlic from very hot or very cold temperatures. The first year I grew all of my garlic organically, because the raised bed had just been redone and a lot of rich, organic material was in the soil mix. The following year and again this season, I tossed a handful of 4-month release Osmocote over each boxed-in area when I planted, and then in late winter I tossed a handful of 8-8-8 fertilizer over each segregated area.
Depending on when and where the garlic is planted, it would be harvested from mid-May until mid-summer. Those single cloves will be bulbs when harvested. Garlic is ready to be harvested when the bottom half of the leaves has turned brown. Waiting longer might produce larger bulbs, but in most cases the cloves will enlarge enough to break the outer covering, and not having a multi-layered, intact covering (wrapper) will decrease the garlic's storage time.
You don't want to pull your bulbs up by grasping the stem/leaves. You should carefully dig the bulbs up. Keeping those stems/leaves attached to the bulb helps the bulbs to "cure" properly. Try to dig so that the bulb's wrapper is not broken or the garlic cloves damaged. Again, a damaged wrapper/clove will shorten your garlic's storage time. You need to hang your garlic in a warm, shady, dry place for at least two weeks. I use a greenhouse for this. During this two-week curing, the wrapper will toughen, again, increasing its storage time. During this curing, the rest of the leaves will turn brown. After adequate curing time, cut the stem off 1-2 inches above the bulb but do no more trimming. Gently rub or brush off the bulbs to remove most of the dirt. You want to store your garlic in a reasonably cool, dry, and dark environment. A temperature between 50F and 60F is ideal, but my garlic is stored in our kitchen pantry, and the temperature there will be closer to 70F. That seems to be fine. I also store all of my garlic in brown paper bags. This keeps the garlic dark. If there is any moisture and any light, the garlic might begin to sprout. Other than for brief periods, never, ever store your garlic in the refrigerator. It will generally either sprout or rot.
Although all of the garlic varieties are planted at the same time, hardneck is typically harvested a couple of weeks before the softneck and Creole. Also, hardneck garlic will grow a scape (stalk), and atop that scape will be a capsule (head) of bulbils. The bulbils look like large seeds. Softneck and Creole varieties won't have this scape. You can certainly eat these small bulbils, and they are pretty mild, and you can plant them in the fall. The problem is that if you plant them in the fall and harvest them the following spring, those bulbils will only have grown into larger, single cloves. You would have to wait another year before those bulbils will become bulbs, like their parent plants. Three years ago I left those bulbil-stalks on until harvest, mainly wanting to see whether I could do anything with the bulbils (I ended up throwing them away). Last year I cut those stalks when they began to grow. I wanted all of the energy to go to bulb formation. I don't really know whether this helped produce larger bulbs. I am going to cut those stalks again this year.
Hardneck will store well for 4-6 months, softneck for 6-9 months, and Creole can be stored for a year or more. If you have more than one category of garlic, and have a lot of it, you would want to use the garlic with the shortest storage life first and then move on to the garlic with the next-shortest storage life.
The third and final garlic article will introduce you to some of the more commonly found heirloom, gourmet garlic varieties.
garlic growing in my raised garden