Garlic is one of those things you either love or hate. When we are little, it seems really strong and pungent. When we get older, however, we tend to like a little extra kick in our food – enter the garlic. Whether roasted whole cloves or chopped and added to a dish, I love it. It’s rich in vitamins and minerals, reduces blood pressure and cholesterol, boosts the immune system, is rumored to have antibiotic properties, and contains antioxidants which help prevent Alzheimer’s and Dementia, as well as additional health benefits. 

There are three main types or varieties of garlic – softneck, hardneck, and elephant. Hardnecks produce a flower stalk and have larger cloves that are easier to peel. Softnecks generally do not produce the central stalk and have smaller but more numerous cloves. Softnecks also grow much faster, are more adaptable, and do not have flower stalks to deal with so they are the type usually found in the supermarket. Elephant Garlic produces mammoth sized heads with few cloves and a much milder flavor, but they are more closely related to leeks. 

Garlic is available year round fresh in the grocery store, and also in an already minced form in a liquid. When you buy garlic, you are actually buying what is called a “bulb” or “head.” This head can and should be split up into individual cloves. The true food connoisseurs will tell you that the best garlic are the ones grown in your own back yard. The problem comes when you are trying to decide which garlic to grow. There are too many types to even count. Fortunately, it is not that hard to grow, and generally does not compete with other foods for planting due to its growth pattern. 

Garlic head on side with roots ready to grow. Photo by mrl, 2020

Cloves are planted pointy side up in the fall with a good helping of compost, a dose of bulb-type fertilizer, and covered with a nice layer of mulch. We always recommend a soil test to check nutrient levels and soil pH. You will be amazed at how well your garden will grow when the pH and soil nutrients are tuned in. The garlic will grow roots throughout the winter. Next spring, it will send up the flower stalk. When a mini “head” appears at the top of the stalk, you can cut off these “scapes” and fry them up. My wife even makes a type of pesto out of the ground up scapes – delicious!  After the scapes are cut off and the leaves start to dry half way down the remaining stalk, garlic heads should be pulled out of the ground and left to dry in a shady place with good air movement (about mid-summer). If done correctly, each clove should grow into a whole new garlic head, which will contain many cloves of its own. In the fall, clip the dried stalk off and divide the head and plant individual cloves. Once you have planted as much as you need, store the remaining heads for eating!   

Dried garlic stalk. Photo by mrl, 2020

Prices vary among mail order sources.  If you can find some local garlic at a farmers’ market or neighborhood farm or garden store, it is generally more reasonably priced. I found some recently for $2.00 a bulb. Online you can expect to pay at least twice that, with some sites charging considerably more for “rarer” varieties. 

A garlic bulb or ‘head’. Photo by mrl, 2020
A garlic head being divided to separate individual cloves. Photo by mrl,2020

As far as varieties go, there are as many as there are stars in the sky. They all will taste like garlic. Over the years, people have selectively bred and crossed different varieties that proved suitable to their needs. The primary differences have to do with suitability to storage, size of the heads, size of the cloves, how many cloves per head, intensity of flavor, and garlic head color.  Please don’t spend too much time worrying about getting the perfect kind. Buy what is available locally or send away for some. You pretty much cannot go wrong. 

There are a few differences though which set garlic varieties apart. I must warn you, it becomes addicting. You start with one variety, and add another one or two…pretty soon you have many different varieties growing in your garden. You must be careful to label them well in your garden and after harvest. Be cautious when buying them as well. Sometimes they get shuffled between bins at local garden centers or farm stores. If one head does not look like the others in the bin, it probably is not the correct variety. I have often traded or given garlic I have grown to friends. I said I would not get into growing too many varieties yet just recently I added two more types to my collection. Once you have grown some garlic, expand your collection to include some additional varieties with different attributes than the ones you are growing.

‘German White’ and ‘Russian Red’ garlic heads. Photo by mrl, 2020

I tend to grow the hardneck varieties I commonly come across at garden centers and farmers markets.  In my opinion, the most popular variety and my favorite is ‘Music’ which is a selection derived from ‘German Extra Hardy.’ Music has very large heads and a number of nice sized, easy to peel cloves. Somewhat strong when fresh, it makes a good all-around garlic that stores well. The flavor mellows out when cooked so it works well in a variety of dishes. If you see it for sale, the bin is usually empty, and it is generally the first to sell out on line indicating its popularity. I suggest buying it early. I have also grown ‘Chesnok Red’ which has much smaller cloves, is purple striped, and has strong flavor good for roasting. Out of all the garlic I have grown, this variety definitely has the most pungent flavor. Opening the bin of them would fill my garage with garlic scent! ‘German White’ has a strong, robust flavor and is on the larger size for the cloves. ‘Russian Red’ has a rich musky flavor, is hot raw, and good in storage. It has an intermediate clove size. ‘Eastern European’ has a mild flavor, good storage, but smaller clove size. I picked up this variety at a famers’ market where the grower said he acquired it from a person who actually carried it over from Europe, though he could not remember from which country. Who could pass that up? You come to a new country and had to bring your garlic? It must be good! Anyway, those are just the tips of the iceberg. I am not saying there is not another, better variety out there, but these are the ones I have come across, grown, and liked. So if you are not already growing garlic, then try some. If you are, add a few new ones this year! 

A bin of garlic called ‘Music’ which is already sod out. Photo by mrl, 2020

Matt Lisy