The Different Kinds of Garlic

softneck garlic fresh from garden
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The Different Kinds of Garlic

Different kinds of garlic, when to plant, and how to know when it’s ready to harvest

Garlic is a staple in culinary traditions around the world and across cultures. Its history can even be traced back to ancient civilizations. Yes, it’s that good – and easy to grow.

Different Kinds of Garlic

Softneck Garlic

Softneck garlic is known for its versatile and milder flavor profile compared to hardneck types. This type of garlic has a pliable stalk, or "neck," which makes it suitable for braiding and extended storage. In terms of taste, softneck garlic has a subtly robust flavor that is less pungent and complements other flavors without being overwhelming. It is particularly favored for its use in sautéed dishes, sauces, and as a seasoning in a wide range of culinary applications. The milder taste makes it a natural choice for raw consumption in salads and dressings. Agriculturally, softneck garlic is hardier and easier to grow, adapting well to a variety of climates, which contributes to its widespread popularity in kitchens, gardens, and on farms.

Hardneck Garlic

Hardneck garlic is distinguished by its robust and often pungent flavor. Unlike its softneck counterpart, hardneck garlic produces a rigid central stalk, known as a "scape," which is often harvested for its own culinary merits. The flavor of hardneck garlic is more pronounced and complex than softneck varieties, offering a richer and sometimes spicier taste that stands out in a variety of dishes. This intense flavor makes it especially suitable for recipes where garlic is the star ingredient, such as in roasted garlic spreads, hearty stews, and robust sauces. From a horticultural perspective, hardneck garlic is less adaptable to varying climates compared to softneck garlic, often preferring cooler temperatures. It's also known for producing fewer but larger cloves, which are highly valued for their ease of peeling and depth of flavor. 

Elephant Garlic

Elephant garlic, Allium ampeloprasum, is a unique, mild-flavored variant often mistaken for traditional garlic. Despite its name, it's more closely related to leeks. It grows in a manner similar to standard garlic, yet it produces significantly larger bulbs, each containing a few large cloves. The flavor of Elephant garlic is notably milder and less intense than that of common garlic varieties, offering a gentle, slightly sweet taste that appeals to those who find regular garlic too pungent. This subtle flavor profile makes it an excellent choice for culinary uses where a hint of garlic flavor is desired. It is particularly well-suited for roasting, which further enhances its sweetness, and is often used in dishes like mashed potatoes, sauces, and as a milder alternative in recipes that call for garlic.

When to Plant Garlic

Softneck garlic cloves can be planted in spring or fall. It’s known for being easier to grow and more productive than hardneck, which is recommended for fall planting. Plant garlic in well-drained soil with plenty of sun. Plant garlic cloves about 2 inches deep with the pointed end up. Space the cloves 4 to 6 inches apart in rows spaced 12 to 18 inches apart.

Hardneck garlic is best planted in fall because it needs a cold period and is a slow grower. Cloves should be planted 4 to 8 inches apart. Place them 2 inches deep in the soil with the pointed end up and wider end down. Rows should be 6 to 12 inches apart.

As one of the first items to ship in spring, softneck garlic offers gardeners the early bird advantage. Planting this variety at the start of the season ensures a head start on your gardening yield, leading to earlier harvests and extended enjoyment of your garlic.

Braiding Softneck Garlic

Among the many reasons for its popularity, softneck garlic is suitable for braiding, a traditional method of storage and decoration. The soft, pliable stalks lend themselves perfectly to being woven into attractive braids. To braid your garlic:

  1. Harvest the garlic when the lower leaves start to brown.
  2. Cure it in a dry, shaded area for a few weeks.
  3. Start with three bulbs, and gradually weave in more, adding one bulb at a time.
  4. Secure the braid with twine and hang it in a cool, dry place. This not only extends the garlic’s shelf life but also creates a rustic, charming kitchen accessory.

Abundant Harvests

Softneck garlic is renowned for its hardiness and prolific nature. Gardeners can expect a bountiful harvest due to its ability to produce more cloves per bulb. This variety is less prone to environmental stress, ensuring a rewarding and plentiful yield even in less-than-ideal conditions. Hardneck garlic is easier to peel and you'll have fewer but larger cloves.

Longevity and Preservation

Softneck garlic is popular for its extended shelf life. When stored properly in a cool, dry place, braided softneck garlic can last up to a year, retaining its flavor and texture. This longevity makes it an excellent choice for gardeners looking to enjoy their harvest well into the winter months. While hardneck garlic doesn't store quite as long as softneck, it can retain freshness and flavor for 6 to 8 months.

What are Garlic Scapes?

Garlic scapes, the curly green shoots that emerge from garlic bulbs, are a lesser-known delicacy. These scapes, especially prevalent in hardneck varieties but sometimes occurring with softneck, are harvested in early summer and offer a milder, more nuanced garlic flavor. They are perfect for sautéing, blending into pestos, or pickling, providing an additional harvest and culinary option from your garlic plants.

When to Harvest Garlic

Harvesting garlic is easy. Remember, though, don't try pulling the bulbs out by the above-ground stems. Loosen the soil alongside each row with a spading fork, making sure to leave enough room so you don’t damage the underground bulbs. Lift them a gently remove from the soil. Garlic stores best when cured with its leaves on.

How to Cure and Store Garlic

  1. Keep leaves in tact and do not wash.
  2. Dry freshly dug bulbs for 2-3 weeks. AKA curing.
  3. Cure the cloves either by hanging them or placing on a tray or screen.
  4. Removing excess moisture prolongs shelflife and softens flavor.
  5. Let them dry in a dark area with good air circulation.
  6. Turn the bulbs occassionally to help them dry evenly.
  7. As they dry, the skins tighten and shrink around the bulb, creating a sealed wrapper for storing. Skins should be dry and crispy.
  8. Clean the bulbs after curing.
  9. Braid softneck garlic and trim hardneck stems leaving 3-6 inches above the top of the head.

When properly cured, hardneck garlic can be stored for 6-8 months and softneck garlic up to one year.