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2003 MHS Herb of the Year - Garlic

Garlic – The Herb of the Hour
Edible All;iums Cookbook By Terry Aitken

Garlic…It’s the herb of the hour. It’s one of The Madison Herb Society’s “Herb of the Year” along with its other allium cousins. From Emeril to Alton Brown, all of the Food Network Chefs praise its properties and the flavor it brings to your favorite food.  So, after listening to all its acclamation you’ve decided to try your hand at growing your own…but what type?

Garlic comes in many different varieties but can be broken down into two different subspecies: Softneck (Sativum Sativum) and Hardneck (Sativum Ophioscorodon).

Softneck Garlics
Softneck is probably the kind that people think of when garlic is mentioned. It’s found on the grocery store shelves and in garlic powder or salt. The skin on Softneck garlic is tight on the clove, making it harder to peel, but protecting it and keeping it fresh longer. It storage ability is what makes it the most commercially grown of the garlics. 

Softnecks are further divided into two subcategories:

  • Artichoke: Named for the fact that the cloves overlap, reminiscent of an Artichoke. They are long lasting, but the taste can be hot.
  • Silverskin: They are the longest lasting of the garlics, and usually the last harvested. They can be very, very hot.

Hardneck Garlics
Hardneck garlics produce less per acre and don’t store as long as the Softnecks, but are more flavorful than their Softneck cousins. The loose skin can also make the cloves easier to peel.

There are 3 subcategories of Hardneck:

  • Rocambloe: The most widely known and widely grown of the Hardnecks, they produce large cloves that are easy to peel.
  • Purple Stripe: Named for the bright purple streaks and blotches on both bulb wrappers and clove skins, they are excellent cooking garlics because they retain their taste.
  • Porcelain: They display satiny white wrappers and have large cloves with good flavor. After storage they can be hotter than Rocambloe.

There are numerous different garlics within each of the subcategories with names like Georgian Crystal, Asian Tempest and German Red. The flavors vary from garlic to garlic, even within the same category. But searching for the garlic you like best is half the fun!

Planting Garlic
Now that you’ve decided on the type of garlic that you want to plant...how do you go about it?

The best time to plant is in the fall, two to three weeks before the first frost to give the plant a chance to put down roots before winter. Planting in the early spring is possible, but will generally yield much smaller heads. Occasionally, spring planted garlic will grow a small head with no division into cloves. These are called marbles. If left in the ground until the following year, they will continue to mature into regular garlic bulbs.

When planting, garlic prefers full sun but will grow successfully in partial sun. The soil should be well drained and high in organics, since garlic is a heavy feeder. The best soil pH is 6.0-6.8. 

Garlic grows as a bulb underground. You get your “seeds” by breaking apart a head of garlic to plant the individual cloves. Cloves should be planted 3- to 6-inches apart with rows 8- to 12-inches apart. Each clove should be planted flat end down in a hole twice the depth of the cloves length. If possible, mulch after planting to help protect it during the winter.

Once the plants start growing in the spring, weed and water as necessary. Garlic does not do well if competing with weeds, so I usually mulch between the rows to help keep the weeds down. About midsummer some types of garlic will send up “scapes.” Scapes are a thick green shoot similar to a Lily stem and should be cut off as they appear since they draw energy from bulb growth. Continue watering through the summer until the leaves start to turn brown then try to keep the plants free of water.

Harvesting Your Garlic
Harvest is usually sometime from Mid-July through August, depending upon conditions and the type of garlic. Bulbs should be dug-up when plants are 50 to 75 percent brown. Be careful not to bruise or injure the bulbs and gently remove excess dirt.

Prior to use, the entire bulb and stalk should be dried for 2 to 3 weeks in an airy well-ventilated location. Once dry, the roots should be trimmed off and the stalk removed about an inch from the head. Remove as much dirt as you can to help keep it from deteriorating. Long-term storage is best at about 40 degrees and 60 percent humidity. Bulbs store best with good air circulation on all sides.

Where do you find garlic for planting?
So you’ve chosen your varieties and now know how to plant…where do you get them? In late summer, garlic can be picked up locally at the farmer’s market, Jungs or Seed Savers. Several companies also specialize in mail order.

Filaree Farm
182 Conconully Hwy.
Okanogan, WA 98840
(509) 422-6940

Gourmet Garlic Gardens
Route 1 Box 44
Bangs, TX 76823
(915) 348-3049

Bobba Mike’s Garlic Farm
PO Box 261
Orrville, OH 44667

Yucca Ridge Farm
46050 Weld Co Road 13
Ft. Collins, CO 80524
(800) 854-7219

Growing your own garlic can be a fun way to get some of the best garlic that you will ever taste.