I didn't grow my own garlic until I started sharing a garden with an Italian. But when you succession-plant Florence fennel the way most people plant lettuce and drive the 2-1/2 hours to Montreal because only Reggiano parmesan for pesto will do, suddenly the store-bought stuff just doesn't cut it. One season and my enthusiasm became an obsession. Even my gardening partner, Mica, is looking askance at the way the garlic plot increases each year, with more colors, flavors and types.
For those who relish its robust flavor, garlic has a mystique. Few other crops have such lore - from impressive health benefits to vampire-repelling qualities - surrounding them. As I talked to market growers and Allium experts around the country, I quickly realized they were under its spell, too.
One such garlic guru is Ron Engeland, author of Growing Great Garlic, a comprehensive guide for home and market gardeners. He raises 350 strains of garlic organically at Filaree Farm in north central Washington state, more than 100 of which are available through their mail-order catalog. In the mid-1970s, Engeland worked with garlic as part of local gardening project. "I just fell in love with it," he says.
Engeland is anxious for gardeners to realize the wide range of garlics they can grow. Perhaps you're intrigued with the geographic origins and like the idea of growing a strain that was purchased by an Allium collector in a bazaar in central Asia. Or you may be captivated by the variations in flavor, which go beyond "hot" and "mild" with descriptions such as those for Brown Tempest ("initial fiery taste that mellows to a pleasing garlicky finish"), Susanville ("mellow with a slight bite ... almost delicate and sweet") or Russian Redstreak ("initial sharp taste in front and roof of mouth as flavor builds").
The generic white bulbs you see in the grocery store are only the tip of the iceberg. Garlic has traditionally been divided into two groups: hardneck and softneck. The hardnecks are believed to have descended directly from wild garlic, which evolved into a domesticated food crop in the "garlic crescent" of eastern Europe and central and eastern Asia. These garlics still produce a flower stalk but rather than bearing fertile flowers, the stalk ends in an aboveground capsule containing small cloves or bulbils.
The more domesticated softnecks have, for the most part, lost the ability to produce this woody flower stalk. Having been selected over thousands of years for higher productivity, wider adaptability and better storage qualities, it's easy to see why they have become the mass-produced garlics of the retail and processing markets.
In 1991, Ron Engeland began describing five types of garlic. Genetic research by Dr. Phil Simon of the University of Wisconsin in 1993 tentatively confirmed this classification. Engeland has since further subdivided his system.
Although locally grown garlic is always a sure bet, don't be afraid to experiment a bit. Just be patient. "Garlic can learn," Engeland explains. "If a nonlocal variety doesn't do too well the first year, that doesn't mean it won't do really well the following year, so save some cloves to plant." He continues to find local strains that have adapted to conditions different from what you would expect of their varietal type.
In most areas, garlic is fall-planted four to six weeks before the ground freezes to allow the roots to get established. In the Midwest and the North, this typically means October. In the South and where winters are mild, garlic is planted in November and December. The following spring, the aboveground growth can then get off to a rapid start to sustain the development of large bulbs. Planting too early in mild climates allows too long a time for clove formation, and the plants may form a bush that looks more like a chive plant. In cold climates, early planting often results in too much top growth, which is susceptible to winter damage. Planting too late for your area, however, will give you a decreased number of long growing days in the early spring, resulting in small plants and small bulbs.
Garlic is in the ground longer than most food crops, so preparing the soil adequately is key. A well-drained loam rich in organic matter is ideal. At Filaree Farm, Engeland composts manure directly in the field where he'll be planting. Soil that has been amended with either green or animal manures within six months won't need fertilization at planting time.
Figure on roughly 7-1/2 pounds of hardneck garlic per 100 feet of row, and five pounds of softneck. Separate the bulbs into cloves and plant only the large, healthy ones, setting them five to six inches apart, with 12 inches between rows. In trials at Cornell University in New York, planting at a depth of two to three inches (compared with one inch) greatly increased winter survival, especially when combined with several inches of straw mulch. The mulch also conserves moisture, which is critical during bulb formation, and helps control weeds.
Spring growth begins quite early for garlic. Many growers recommend fertilizing with nitrogen at this point. If your soil fertility is low and the plants look pale, foliar-feed every two weeks with fish emulsion and liquid kelp or side-dress with bloodmeal. But remember: Once green leaves stop growing in late spring, it's too late. Fertilizing at that point will delay bulbing and result in a lower-quality harvest.
Growers disagree as to whether you need to pop the "tops" of the hardnecks, that is, cut off the flower stalk so the plant diverts its energy into the below-ground bulb. Engeland notes that soil fertility, climate and the strain of garlic you're growing probably all play a role, and his recommendation is to experiment. "If you do remove the stalk, save the capsule and plant the bulbils inside 1/2-inch deep for a quick-growing crop of garlic greens."
"Garlic likes it a little warmer and a little drier than onions do," says William Randle, head of the Allium breeding program at the University of Georgia. "Down here we've got the heat but we don't have the dry," he notes. "Diseases are the biggest problem I see." Randle stresses planting only healthy cloves and maintaining a three-year rotation with the whole Allium family. "Find a variety that matures by mid-May, before those foliar diseases really kick in," he advises.
Hardneck garlic generally won't develop large, flavorful bulbs in the South - it prefers a cooler climate and longer days - but Jeff McCormack of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia has had good luck with Purple rocambole. "It has performed consistently and sizes up well," he says. He recommends Yugoslavian rocambole, too. He notes, however, that the artichoke types are more forgiving of the heat and get to be twice the size. For gardeners in hot, dry areas, he recommends Mild French silverskin.
The winter of 1978 caused garlic grower Richard Wrench in Kalispell, Montana, to rethink his approach to planting garlic. Wrench maintains a collection of 360 strains at The Montana Garlic Farm on the edge of Glacier National Park. That winter, the temperatures of 30°F froze his fall-planted garlic and when things thawed in the spring, he had a field of liquified bulbs. "I told myself there has to be a better way," Wrench says.
And he's found it: spring-planting. By saving the best-looking, longest-storing spring-planted bulbs for replanting the following spring, Wrench has developed strains that well. One variety, Montana Roja, yields a market-quality rocambole with 1/4-pound heads after curing.
"If you can grow good-sized onions from sets or seed," Wrench maintains, "you can spring-plant garlic." He plants as soon as the soil can be worked, no later than mid-April, and harvests in early September. But, he emphasizes, the date of planting isn't as important as the heat and hours of daylight of your growing season.
In most areas of the country, garlic is ready in midsummer. "I harvest garlic when four to six green leaves are left on the plant," says Engeland. Each green leaf equals a solid bulb wrapper; the brown or dead leaves at the base of the plant are bulb wrappers that are decaying. Overmature bulbs can split apart, allowing moisture to get in. Hardneck garlics are generally ready before softnecks, and they require more attention at harvest time, as they're more susceptible to decay if left in the soil too long. Pull plants by hand (loosening the soil around them first). Handle the bulbs gently so you don't bruise them.
Cure the bulbs for two to three weeks, spread out on screens or hung, in a warm, dry place with good air circulation. Where humidity is high, curing can take a month or even two and may require a fan. When you cut the dried top one inch above the bulb and no moisture is evident, the garlic is ready to be stored. Temperatures of 32° to 40° F and 60 percent to 70 percent humidity is ideal, but garlic will also store well at room temperature. Temperatures of 42° to 52° F will cause sprouting, however.
Ron Engeland breaks garlic into three hardneck types (rocambole, purple stripe and porcelain) and two softnecks (artichoke and silverskin). He then subdivides three of these types. Here we illustrate their relationship, using a strain from each type, and give the approximate number of strains in cultivation in the U.S. Comments on flavor are from Engeland's experiences in Washington state. He notes that climate, soil, temperature extremes during the growing season and length of storage all affect the flavor of garlic.
Hardneck Garlic Allium ophioscorodon The closest descendants of wild garlic, hardnecks form a tall, woody flower stalk in spring. Below ground, a single circle of cloves forms around this central stalk. At the top of the stalk, a capsule develops, containing a cluster of smaller garlic cloves (bulbils). The loose-skinned cloves are easy to peel but quicker to dry out, so they don't keep as long as softneck garlic. Hardnecks are reputed to have a more intense, "half-wild" garlic flavor. They perform best in cool climates.
Rocambole. The most commonly grown hardneck garlic. Distinctive 3- to 4-foot flower stalk forms one to three tight coils; bulbs are blotchy purple; plump cloves are brownish with a reddish blush, 6 to 11 per bulb; stores 4 to 6 months; outstanding raw flavor when well grown and locally adapted; retains its character when cooked. About 30 strains.
Glazed. This purple stripe subgroup combines characteristics of both that type and rocambole. Bulbs and cloves have a purple glaze tinged with gold or silver; fewer, shorter cloves than standard purple stripe; stores 4 to 6 months. Perhaps 2 strains.
Purple Stripe. The only garlic that appears to produce fertile flowers, which suggests it may be the oldest type. Tall flower stalks make perfect curls or random coils; bulb colors vary by soil and climate; cloves are tall with red-purple streaks and blush over buff background; 8 to 12 cloves per bulb; stores 4 to 6 months; flavor is similar to rocambole but with more "zip"; holds flavor when cooked. About 17 strains.
Marbled. A varied subgroup of purple stripe, this type also has characteristics of both rocambole and porcelain types and is possibly the garlic from which rocambole evolved. Bulbs are mottled or spotted; cloves are fa and dark brown, with 4 to 7 per bulb; stores 6 to 8 months. About 7 strains.
Porcelain. Relatively rare in North America. When grown in poor soil, this type resembles wild garlic, with small, narrow leaves. In fertile soil, the plants are tall and vigorous. Bulbs have shiny, smooth, tight, white wrappers; cloves are plump with tall tips, 3 to 6 per bulb, colors are similar to standard purple stripe; stores 6 to 7 months; flavor is similar to rocambole but with more bite (and tastes hotter after storage); good raw or cooked. About 11 strains.
Softneck Garlic Allium sativum The most commonly grown garlic in the world. Descendants of hardneck garlic, softnecks have lost the ability to flower or produce topsets (although some will produce bulbils when stressed by cold climates or wet conditions). Their bulbs are large, with overlapping layers of cloves all the way to the center. Tight bulb wrappers and clove skins prevent dehydration, thus they store longer than hardnecks. The flavor ranges from mild to hot. The softnecks are easier to grow and more widely adapted than the hardneck types.
Silverskin. This is the garlic you see in the supermarket, and the favorite with braiders. It performs best in very fertile soil and a long season with a mild winter. Very upright plants; bulbs are slightly elliptical with very tight, smooth, white wrappers; solid red-pink or glossy white cloves with very tight skins, 3 to 6 layers in northern climates and up to 8 in southern climates; stores for up to one year; grown in ideal conditions, raw flavor can be very mild. Grown in less than ideal conditions, it can be unpleasantly hot. Cooking brings out the flavor. About 15 strains.
Artichoke. Believed to have evolved from rocambole, this is the easiest garlic to grow because it adapts to a wide variety of soils and climates. Plants are vigorous. Some strains produce small bulbils in the juncture of the leaves. Bulbs are large and lumpy with thick, coarse, often yellowish wrappers; cloves overlap in 4 to 5 layers like an artichoke; large outer cloves and small inner ones, 12 to 20 per bulb; most cloves off-white with some light pink or brown blush; stores 6 to 9 months; flavor is better raw. About 56 strains.
Turban. Currently only a few varieties of this artichoke subgroup are available. Engeland offers them as part of a specialty pack. Forms a weak flower stalk with a turban-shaped capsule; bulbs are purple-red; single layer of cloves with light glossy pink; stores 2 to 4 months. Perhaps 3 strains.
Asiatic. This artichoke subgroup matures very suddenly and a little earlier than standard artichokes. Rare in this country. Adaptable to cold and mild wet winter climates. Short, drooping flower stalk bears a long capsule shaped like a dried bean pod that contains only a few large bulbils; bulbs are faintly striped; forms a single circle (like hardnecks) of firm, plump cloves with thick, slightly glossy skins; stores 6 to 9 months. About 4 strains.
Creole. This silverskin subgroup produces short, weak, arching flower stalks and tiny capsules that sometimes fail to produce bulbils.Large bulbs are often purple; fat, wide, red-pink or red-purple cloves, often with only 1 to 2 per bulb; stores for up to 8 or 9 months; grows best in the Southwest and mild winter climates. About 3 strains.
Currently an editor at Williamson Publishing, Vicky Congdon is a former managing editor at National Gardening.
Photography by Sabin Gratz, Suzanne DeJohn and National Gardening Association