If you're thinking of planting garlic, you'll have a choice between two types: hardneck and softneck. Each has its strengths and some have other culinary uses. For example, only hardneck garlic produces the edible flower stem called a garlic scape—a delicacy that can be pickled or added to a range of foods for a mild peppery flavor. Read on to learn more about the different types, how to grow garlic, and determine the right kind for you.
About Hard and Softneck Garlic
The "neck" in the names refers to the stalk that grows upward from the garlic bulb. Hardnecks have a stalk that stems from the center of the bulb and turns rigid at maturity. Softnecks stalks have leaves rather than a central stalk. Softneck leaves remain soft and flexible at maturity. Hardnecks typically have thicker, more brittle skin, unlike softneck garlic that tends to be papery and more challenging to peel.
If you prefer to grow the garlic you find in the grocery store, you want softneck garlic. They are commonly sold in stores because of their long shelf life and relatively mild flavor for most recipes.
In general, hardnecks have more complex flavors than softneck varieties, with subtle flavors that reflect where they were grown. The strength and character of the flavors differ based on the variety. Purple Stripes are mild; Porcelains are musky; Rocamboles are hot and spicy.
Hardneck garlic is cold-hardy, able to tolerate overwintering in harsh climates down to zone 0. If you live in an area where cool-season lawns (bluegrass, perennial rye, fine fescue) are the norm, a hardneck garlic is a better choice. Softneck garlic grows typically best in climates with hot summers and mild winters, places where warm-season Zoysia and Bermuda lawns thrive from zone 8 to 12. If you're in a transitional zone between both, try planting both kinds.
Hardneck garlic varieties (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon), as their name implies, are generally hardier than softneck varieties. Hardneck varieties are the best option for Northern gardeners. They tend to form fewer cloves per bulb than softneck varieties, but they are most often a bit larger. Hardneck garlic grows better in colder climates because it requires prolonged exposure to cold weather of at least 40 days at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less. This process is called vernalization.
Within the hardneck family, there are over 200 varieties, including:
- Purple Stripe
- Marbled Purple Stripe
- Glazed Purple Stripe
- Middle Eastern
These all fall into three main types of hardneck garlic: Purple Stripe, Rocambole, and Porcelain. Rocambole is tan or brownish, with 12 cloves per bulb. Porcelain is satiny white (hence the name) and about four cloves per bulb. Purple stripes are self explanatory. The Purple Stripe and Rocambole types are the hardiest. They are best for gardeners who live in the northeastern U.S. and Canada. Gardeners who live in milder climates should have good luck with Porcelain varieties.
Hardneck garlic has a shorter shelf life than softnecks, only lasting 3 to 5 months in storage after harvesting.
Softneck garlic varieties (Allium sativum var. sativum) are the best to grow if you live in a milder climate. They grow better in environments with warmer winters because they do not require cold exposure to make bulbs while hardnecks do. They also mature more quickly than hardneck varieties. They don't form scapes and generally contain several small cloves per bulb.
Softneck types include:
- Blanco Piacenza
- California Early and Late Whites
- Corsican Red
- Inchelium Red
- Silver Rose
- Silver White
- French Red
Softneck varieties tend to store better than hardnecks because of their dense heads and tightly wrapped cloves. This tight wrapping helps the cloves preserve their moisture while also preventing disease from getting in. They can stay fresh and firm for up to 9 months when cured and stored correctly. So, if you are looking for long-term storage, this type is the one to choose.
Planting and Mulching Garlic
When planting hardneck and softneck garlic, the process is the same as is the planting time: fall. Usually, hardnecks are planted by mid-October or before the first frost. You can wait a few more weeks before getting softneck cloves into the ground.
To plant garlic, open a full-grown garlic head and remove the cloves. Keeping the papery covering intact, plant only the largest, healthiest cloves with the pointy end up. Insert them in the ground about 2 to 3 inches deep and at least 6 to 8 inches apart in enriched soil.
Mulch the garlic bed with straw, mulch hay, or leaf litter. Mulching reduces weeds, keeps nutrients and water in the soil, and protects the cloves over the winter. As temperatures warm in early spring, remove some of the mulch and top-dress with organic compost.
How to Store Garlic
Once you've harvested your garlic, if you're not going to eat it right away, then it needs to cure. Harvesting, curing, and storage are roughly the same for hardneck and softneck garlic. The only difference is that once it's cured, hardneck garlic is easily stored in bunches, while softneck garlic stems are soft enough to be braided for beautiful and convenient storage.
Curing garlic allows it to be stored longer. The process of curing is essentially letting it dry from two weeks to two months (two months, if dry climate, and two months, if humid climate). Large bulbs and bulbs with large cloves generally take longer to cure. Garlic stores best when it's cured with its leaves on. The bulb draws energy from the leaves and roots until all the moisture evaporates. The leaves also prevent fungi from spoiling the garlic.
It's dried once the skin shrinks and turns papery. The roots appear shriveled and feel stiff, and the leaves are entirely browned and dried. Clean it up by removing the leaves at the neck and trimming the roots (with a pair of scissors or pruners) to 1/4 inch or 1/2 inch long. Dirt will crumble off, and loose layers of bulb wrap may flake off. Keep the nice and neatly packaged bulb whole if you want it to stay fresh for a few months. It will last only about a week if you break it apart. Keep it dry, in the dark, and with good air circulation. A wire mesh basket is ideal. Do not store garlic in the refrigerator, it can sprout and become bitter.