Store-bought garlic, which typically comes from California, China, or Mexico, is often grown with conventional pesticides and is bred for durability—not flavor. But home gardeners have hundreds of varieties to choose from. There are two basic categories: hardneck and softneck. Hardnecks have a rigid central stalk that produces a scape (edible flower stem) about two months before harvest. Hardnecks have excellent flavor but limited storability—they’re best eaten within three to four months. Softnecks do not grow scapes, can last up to a year in storage, and have pliable stalks that braid easily. Their flavor is less complex than hardnecks’. Beyond these two categories, easy generalizations end. Garlic cultivars vary widely in flavor and shelf life. Growing a mix of short- and long-storing types keeps your pantry stocked into early summer. Like soft-ripened cheese, garlic becomes more complex the longer you push back your harvest. One of the major benefits of growing your own is finding the sweet spot of each variety.
Related: 6 Ways To Make Garlic Last Longer
A garlic “seed” is nothing more than a clove of garlic planted root side down. Purchasing from an organic garlic grower will ensure that you get high-quality stock. If sourcing online, purchase in early fall for the best selection. Garlic takes a few years to adjust to new growing conditions; sourcing seed from a grower in your home climate, such as a vendor at your local farmers’ market, increases your chances of big, healthy bulbs right off the bat. After buying your first round of seed, you can save bulbs from your own harvest to replant in the fall. Choose those that are large, have five or more cloves, and are bruise- and blemish-free. Don’t bother planting a supermarket clove—even if it’s certified organic, its flavor is likely dull and flat. For the most vigorous yields, never plant a clove that has already sprouted.
Soil, Sun, Water
A garden with rich soil and eight or more hours of sunlight will grow big, flavorful garlic. Growing in containers isn’t recommended. While it can be done, anything less than a 10-gallon tub will crowd the roots, yielding tiny cloves that are a pain to peel. Additionally, soil in a container is more likely to freeze, putting your crop at risk of cold damage. Before planting in the ground, add a 1- to 3-inch layer of aged compost to feed fall root growth. In the spring, top-dress the plants with more compost. Garlic needs regular watering until 40 to 50 percent of the leaves are brown, at which point the cloves need to begin drying in the soil, a crucial step for concentrating flavor and increasing storability.
Where to Plant
Because garlic is in the ground for up to nine months, it takes planning to find the right spot. Avoid replanting in the same place each year, which can allow harmful pathogens to accumulate in the soil. Resist the urge to interplant garlic between other vegetables. Its narrow leaves do not tolerate shading from bigger plants, and its roots dislike crowding. (Here's how to grow garlic greens indoors.)
Three to Try
The single malt of hardneck garlic, ‘Spanish Roja’ has a sweet, pure garlic flavor considered the gold standard by many growers. It’s best eaten directly after curing and stores for up to three months. It prefers cold winters, so try equally delicious ‘Killarney Red’ in warmer regions. For those who like garlic with a kick, ‘Asian Tempest’ has jalapeño heat when raw that softens into garlicky richness when cooked. It stores well for a hardneck. Enjoy it two to five months after curing. A mellow softneck with buttery qualities, ‘Inchelium Red’ is a good choice to braid for late-winter and spring eating. Find all of these and more at filareefarm.com and burpee.com.
Make It Happen
Prep beds with compost. In cold climates, plant three to five weeks before soil freeze; in warm climates, by December. Plant one clove per hole 6 to 8 inches apart in rows 10 inches apart. Plant each clove 2 to 3 inches deep. Smooth top of soil and cover with 2 to 4 inches of mulch. (Be sure to follow this essential trick to planting healthy garlic.)
Remove mulch once the danger of a hard freeze has passed (in southern regions, skip this step). Weed! Water deeply but infrequently—once a week if no rain. Stop when half of the lower leaves turn brown. Fertilize. Harvest scapes.
Harvest when 50 to 75 percent of leaves have dried. Insert a pitchfork or shovel into the soil about 6 inches deep, 4 inches from stalk. Use leverage to gently lift bulb. Brush off dirt. Cure in a cool spot with good air flow and no direct sunlight. Lay bulbs on a shelf in a single layer or hang in bundles of six to nine. Cure three to four weeks, until bulb wrappers are completely dry. If you plan to braid your garlic, cure for two weeks first.
After curing, trim off the roots and stem, peel away outer wrappers, and use a toothbrush to remove any soil from the base. Don’t use water. Garlic rots easily when moisture enters the picture. Store cured and cleaned garlic in a cool, dry, dark place for two to six months, depending on the variety.