A Love Story: Why and How to Grow Hardneck Garlic

A Love Story: Why and How to Grow Hardneck Garlic  thumbnail

A version of this article was originally written for Edible Upcountry Magazine.

Garlic: a white edible bulb commonly used to repel vampires or terminate a bad first date. What else is there to know about the stuff? A lot, actually.

Before my wife and I started turning our suburban yard into an edible food forest, we knew that we liked garlic, but our sentiments towards Allium sativum would be more aptly described as a modest crush than a mature romance—it certainly wasn’t love.

Our feelings changed rather dramatically once we tasted fresh heirloom garlic that a friend brought us from his brother’s organic farm in Virginia. At that moment, we realized that we’d never actually had “real” garlic before. The flavor was intense and complex, yet not overwhelming to the palate; instead of the oily lingering characteristics of the garlic we were accustomed to, this garlic was moist and only performed a brief flashy dance on our taste buds before moving on to allow new partners a turn.

Hardneck garlic dug from the garden.

Hardneck garlic dug from the garden.

We learned that these differences were due to the fact that most garlic we’d ever tasted was probably from a strong, single-noted, white “softnecked” variety less acclaimed for its flavor, than its ability to store well during its multi-month transport from China to a nearby grocery store. Apparently, somewhere along the line, it became settled fact that American grocery shoppers:

  1. Preferred mono-flavored, white-skinned garlic to the more colorful (and flavorful) heirloom varieties, and
  2. Would rather save a penny by purchasing foreign-grown garlic from thousands of miles away rather than support local organic farmers living in their communities.

We never received that survey.

Our initial nirvanic garlic experience led us to further distrust the axiom “ignorance is bliss.” When it comes to food, we’ve found that our ignorance usually means that there is a lot of undiscovered bliss out there waiting to be tasted.

So, to assuage our newly-realized ignorance, we began researching how to find and plant “real” garlic in our garden. Thankfully, there are plenty of easy-to-find sources on the internet for organic, heirloom hardneck garlic of various sizes, colors and shapes, each with its own unique and nuanced flavor profile.

We’ve learned that there are roughly 600 currently known sub-varieties of garlic sharing the planet with us, many of which are now available in the western hemisphere thanks to a handful of passionate USDA scientists who brought piles of previously unknown varieties back to the US from the Caucasus region (domesticated garlic’s native soil) during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

A few varieties of hardneck garlic from our 2015 harvest.

A few varieties of hardneck garlic from our 2015 harvest.

My wife and I often fantasize about traveling the globe for a “meet and eat” to become acquainted with each of these 600 sub-varieties of garlic. However, until we find a wealthy benefactor to fund this grand adventure, we’ve instead decided to naturalize multiple varieties of garlic around our yard and speak in the native language of its cultivators during planting and harvesting times. (This “language” is a unique combination of gibberish and broken English, spoken with a faux Russian accent—Susan The Tyrant is convinced our garlic understands us, although this behavior has earned a few wary glances from our neighbors.)

We’re now entering the fourth seventh year of our ever-expanding gardening and garlic experiment. What we’ve learned is this: garlic is like life—the more you learn about it, the more you realize you don’t know, but the more you want to know, so you keep learning about it. Got it?

Yes, it’s a vicious cycle, but it beats the heck out of the alternative: eating generic garlic.

We’re uncertain as to whether any local ordinances exist that may prohibit you from allowing your garlic (or other plants) to asexually or sexually reproduce in your yard. However, we are certain of one thing: if you want to make a great first impression on a first date, consider sharing a meal that includes home-grown, organic heirloom garlic. It truly is love at first taste.


How To Grow Hardneck Garlic

For anyone interested in growing their own hardneck garlic using organic/permaculture methods, here are a few tips to help start you on your path to garlic addiction:

Tip 1 For Growing Garlic: Start Easy

Use Cloves – We grow garlic bulbs from both “bulbils” (the miniature cloves that develop from a mature garlic scape, which are different from garlic seeds) and from “cloves” (the individual sections you break off from a mature garlic bulb). The difference is in how long each will take to become a mature garlic bulb. Bulbils take about two years to form a bulb and cloves take a little less than one year to form a bulb.

If you’re new to garlic growing, getting near-immediate gratification is important for gaining some green-thumbed confidence, so we recommend growing garlic by starting with cloves.

This is a freshly harvested hardneck garlic bulb containing multiple cloves. You can save your largest cloves to replant in the fall, and each clove will produce a whole new bulb.

This is a freshly harvested hardneck garlic bulb containing multiple cloves. You can save your largest cloves to replant in the fall, and each clove will produce a whole new bulb.

How to Plant Garlic Cloves – To plant cloves, simply tear off the large cloves from a healthy, garden-variety garlic bulb (eat the small cloves from the bulb since they probably won’t grow to form large bulbs), making sure to leave the papery husk on the cloves. Plant each clove about two to three inches deep in rich, well-draining soil, root end down, pointy tip up, about six inches apart from each other within the row, with each row about 10 inches apart from the next row. Our garden is planned in a less traditional polyculture system, so we also like to plant garlic throughout our beds with other plant species as well.

Garlic growing amongst a bed of 'Yellow Wonder' strawberries (left), black raspberries (back), and other goodies.

Garlic growing amongst a bed of ‘Yellow Wonder’ strawberries (left), black raspberries (back), and other goodies.

When to Plant Garlic – Get your garlic cloves in the ground in the early-mid fall and before the first hard freeze. Make sure they’re in a spot that will get at least eight hours of direct sunlight during the spring and summer. Keep at least four inches of good leaf or wood chip mulch top-dressed on your garlic beds to help maintain optimal soil health, moisture and temperature levels. If you’re planting in a spot that doesn’t have good soil, add good compost or actively aerated compost tea to the area when you’re planting. If all goes well, each individual clove will become a large, harvest-ready bulb the following summer when the leaves brown.

Tip 2 For Growing Garlic: Grow Hardneck Garlic

We grow “hard-necked” garlic varieties rather than “softnecked” varieties (the ones typically found in grocery stores). No, “hardnecked” is not a new derogatory term for southerners. Hardneck varieties are genetically closest to the original cultivated garlic, and they typically produce bigger cloves that are easier to open. They also tend to grow well in our hot, humid climate, and have superior flavors to softneck varieties.

Depending on the specific type, hardneck garlic will store well for three to six months, not quite as long as their softnecked siblings. Some of our favorite hardneck varieties have very exotic-sounding names like Music, Purple Glazer, Georgian Fire and Early Red Italian—all of which will impress even the most debonair hipster neighbor. If not, using the botanical latin names should do the trick.

Tip 3 For Growing Hardneck Garlic: Enjoy All Three Edible, Gourmet Parts

1. Hardneck Garlic Scapes

All parts of a hardneck or softneck garlic plant are edible, from the bulbs to the greens. However, perhaps the best reason to choose hardneck over softneck garlic varieties is that only hardneck varieties produce a third edible part: the highly-coveted delicacy known as garlic “scapes.”

We love all parts of our hardneck garlic plants, but we're especially fond of the

We love all parts of our hardneck garlic plants, but we’re especially fond of the “scapes.”

Garlic scapes are curly, green garlic stalks that sprout from the center of the plant in mid-spring. They have the tender consistency of asparagus, but all the unique deliciousness of a garlic clove. If left untouched, each scape forms dozens of garlic bulbils and possibly seeds (depending on whether your garlic was purchased from a breeder who allowed the predecessors to reproduce sexually or not).

This is what a garlic scape looks like, and this is about the size you want to pick them. If you leave them on the plant, the tips will open and form garlic

This is what a garlic scape looks like, and this is about the size you want to pick them. If you leave them on the plant, the tips will open and form garlic “bulbils,” which you can plant. Bulbils will take three years to form garlic bulbs. Removing the scape forces the plant to put more energy into its bulb, thus making it form larger bulbs.

As mentioned earlier, garlic bulbils can be planted in the late fall to produce harvest-ready garlic cloves in two to three years, whereas a single garlic clove is capable of producing an entirely new bulb in its first year. However, rather than letting garlic scapes grow to full maturity, most growers choose to harvest—or more accurately “neuter”—their garlic plants in May-June when the scapes are 4-8 inches long.

Garlic scapes are a true delicacy that we use in an assortment of culinary delights ranging from green garlic pesto to Asian-inspired stir-fries. Another reason many gardeners remove their scapes: once robbed of its ability to sexually reproduce, the neutered garlic plant is forced to put more of its energy into asexual reproduction, thereby producing larger underground bulbs.

2. Garlic Greens

We don’t like being without garlic. Therefore, in the early spring before we have garlic bulbs or scapes, we’ll harvest some of our smaller garlic plants. The immature bulbs are still small but incredibly tasty, and the young greens are tender and delicious. They’re wonderful chopped and added to a stir fry or other dishes. Our personal favorite is making green garlic pesto (see our recipe here).

3. Garlic Cloves 

Most people know what to do with garlic cloves, so we won’t go into detail here. However, if you’ve never grown your own garlic before, it’s important to note that you’ll want to “cure” your garlic for long-term storage.

Hardneck garlic ready to cure.

Hardneck garlic ready to cure in the garage.

You don’t have to wash your garlic before curing. Once removed from the ground, simply store the entire plant in a dry spot out of the sun. We put ours on a shelf in the garage for at least two weeks. The leaves should be dry and crunchy when curing is finished. Once cured, we’ll cut off the dried leaves, brush the dirt of the cloves, and store them indoors. Ideally, we can grow enough garlic cloves to last us all the way until the next harvest year, or at least until we can get our hands on some spring garlic greens and scapes!

We hope this article has you ready to start your own garlic by next fall. Happy garlic-ing, hardneckers!

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