On our previous blog we provided some basic tips and information for growing garlic in your backyard garden. We discussed planting times, fertilization requirements, the importance of mulching, and more. Click here to see that blog article.
Here I wanted to do a deeper dive into the different types of garlic you can grow and how to choose the right type for your backyard garden. But before we get started, we need to define two terms that will be important for understanding the differences between garlic types. These terms are “vernalization” and “stratification.” Vernalization refers to a period of cold temperatures that garlic needs to form individual cloves. Stratification refers to the process of the bulb forming those individual cloves.
For most garlic varieties, you need vernalization to get stratification. In simpler terms, you need cold weather to form individual cloves on the garlic bulb. If you don’t have proper vernalization or cold enough temperatures, you’ll grow a solid bulb without individual cloves. Many folks refer to this as a “pearl.” And while you can certainly cook with the pearl, the goal for most gardeners is to produce the individual cloves for cooking.
Now that we’ve defined those two important garlic-related terms, let’s talk about the different types you can grow!
Elephant Garlic (Allium ampeloprasum)
Although it is in the same genus (Allium) as softneck and hardneck garlic, elephant garlic is a leek. But it looks and grows much more like garlic than it does a leek. Elephant garlic is one of the easiest garlic types to grow, especially if you live in the southern states. This is because it doesn’t require cold temperatures (vernalization) to stratify and form individual cloves. However, it is the least cold hardy of the three types that are discussed in this blog. Take that into consideration if you live in the northern states.
Elephant garlic produces the largest cloves of the three types of garlic that we’ll mention. Each bulb usually contains 5-6 large cloves that are relatively easy to peel. Elephant garlic has a milder flavor than softneck or hardneck garlic and doesn’t have much of a “bite” or spicy flavor. We like to use elephant garlic primarily for pickling and fermenting vegetables like cucumbers, carrots, and okra. We place one of the large cloves in each jar to provide some nice garlic flavor to pickles and other fermented treats.
Towards the end of the elephant garlic growth cycle, plants will form hardened stalks called scapes. A seed head with flowers will form at the top of the scapes. Keep a close eye on your garlic during this time and remove the scapes before the seed head opens. Sautée them in a light olive oil for a delicious treat! Once the elephant garlic forms scapes and seed heads, the garlic bulb will be as large as it’s going to get. Pull the plants and place them in a cool, dark, well-ventilated area where they will store over a year in some cases.
Softneck Garlic (Allium sativum)
Now for the true garlics! Softneck garlic is different than hardneck garlic in many ways. As the name suggests, softneck garlic doesn’t have a hard central stalk or “neck.” Instead, it produces many leaves along the stalk as it grows. If you’ve ever purchased garlic bulbs in the grocery store, it was likely softneck garlic. This is because softneck garlic stores much longer than softneck garlic and is more shelf stable.
Softneck garlic is more flavorful than elephant garlic, but not as flavorful as most hardneck garlic varieties. Softneck garlic cloves tend to have a papery skin and are more difficult to peel than hardneck or elephant garlic. Placing the entire clove in the microwave for a few seconds will make them much easier to peel. This type of garlic also tends to have smaller cloves than the other two types mentioned here.
There are two distinct subtypes of softneck garlic — artichoke and silverskin — with many varieties that belong to each subtype. Artichoke types usually have larger cloves with fewer cloves per bulb. Silverskin types usually have smaller cloves with many cloves per bulb, sometimes 20 or more! Artichoke types have a milder flavor than silverskin types which are probably the closest thing you’ll find to some of the flavorful hardneck varieties out there.
Softneck garlic is probably the most versatile as far as the growing regions in which it can be successfully grown. It’s more cold-hardy than elephant garlic, but not quite as cold-hardy as hardneck garlic. Softneck garlic does require some cold weather to stratify and form cloves, but not as much as hardneck garlic. If you live in the southern states, be sure to store your garlic cloves in the fridge a couple months before planting. This will simulate the vernalization period that the bulbs need to stratify later when in the ground.
Softneck garlic doesn’t produce a scape or seed head to signify it’s ready to harvest. This makes it a little more difficult to predict a timely harvest. To ensure heads are harvested at the right time, keep a close watch on the bottom leaves of the plants. Once the bottom leaves start to turn yellow, it’s usually ready to harvest. If you leave the plants in the ground too long, the heads can begin to rot. Once harvested, place in a cool dry place where it will usually store for 9+ months.
Hardneck Garlic (Allium sativum)
Hardneck garlic is the most flavorful of the three. If you enjoy garlic that has an intense, spicy “bite” to it, this is the type you’ll want to grow. As such, this is the type that most chefs prefer to use when cooking and infusing garlic flavors into their dishes. There are many different varieties with varying degrees of heat for different cooking applications.
The clove size on hardneck garlic is usually somewhere between softneck and elephant garlic. The cloves are not as large as elephant garlic cloves, but they’re larger than most softneck varieties. Hardneck garlic cloves have a brittle skin that make them very easy to peel. Hardneck garlic subtypes include Rocambole, Porcelain, Purple Stripe, and a few more depending on the source. Rocambole and Purple Stripe varieties have smaller cloves (6-10 cloves per head) while Porcelain varieties tend to have the largest cloves (4-7 per cloves per head).
Hardneck garlic is the most cold-hardy garlic you can grow. Therefore, it is the preferred type for growers in the far northern states and Canada. It requires significantly colder weather to stratify or form individual cloves. If you’re attempting to grow hardneck garlic in the southern states, you’ll want to give the cloves an extended chill period in the fridge before planting. I’d recommend at least a couple months, if not three.
As the name suggests, hardneck garlic has a hard central stalk and the plants look more like elephant garlic than softneck garlic. When plants are close to maturity, they will produce a scape with a seed head. As mentioned above, be sure to harvest these scapes and use them because they are delicious! Once the plants form scapes and seed heads, the garlic can be harvested and stored in a cool dry location. Hardneck garlic has the shortest storage time of the three and should be used within a few months of harvest.
Which Garlic Type is Right for You?
To decide which garlic type you should grow, start with your climate. If you live in the southern states, try mastering elephant garlic before attempting to grow softneck and hardneck garlic. If you live in the middle of the country, you should be able to easily grow all three. If you live in the northern states, hardneck garlic is probably your best bet.
In addition to the cold-hardiness and stratification requirements, consider what you want as far as flavor. Do you prefer a milder garlic flavor or a garlic that is intense and somewhat spicy? If you want the garlic flavor without much heat, grow elephant or softneck varieties. If you want maximal flavor and heat from the garlic you grow, go with hardneck.
Once you start growing a few garlic varieties, you’ll find yourself experimenting with more and more varieties that have different flavor profiles. And when you find one that you really like, it’s easy to save the cloves and continue replanting that variety year after year. Grow enough so that you have plenty for the kitchen, but also enough to replant the following fall.
Thousands of gardeners have been tuning in to The Lazy Dog Farm YouTube channel where Travis covers a variety topics ranging from how to successfully start seedlings to how to make a flavorful hotsauce that packs a punch. Accompanied by his wife Brooklyn and their two boys, the gardens on their 2 acre homestead in southwest Georgia are always filled with a wide variety of vegetables that are enjoyed fresh or preserved for later.