Plant Common Name
Cultivated Garlic, Garlic
Among the many members of the onion family, garlic (Allium sativum), holds a place of honor for its essential culinary role. It offers distinctive, pungent flavor in cuisines across the globe. This ancient crop that was first grown in present day Central Asia and India before it reached the Ancient Egyptians through trade and they began cultivating it around 3200 BC. The ancient Hebrews, Greeks and Romans also valued garlic for food and as a medicinal curative.
Garlic is a hardy bulbous perennial that produces a fan of narrow, tapered, gray-green tubular leaves in spring followed by tall flower stems that appear in summer. The ball-shaped cluster of flowers emerges from a papery husk and consists of lots of small, white, tubular flowers. When in bloom, garlic is quite ornamental and attracts bees and butterflies. Some selections bear heads of tiny bulbs, called bulbils, instead of flowers. These little bulbs drop to the ground and root to form whole new plants.
The garlic bulb consists of a tightly packed cluster of multiple cloves. Both the head and the cloves are surrounded by thin, papery skin that is unpalatable. Otherwise, the whole plant is edible. The mild-flavored leaves and immature flower stems can be cooked and are relished in many cuisines. The cloves have a sharp, pungent, even hot taste when raw but develop a mild, sweet flavor when cooked.
There are two common garlic types, softneck and hardneck. The most common type at grocery stores is softneck. It has no woody central stalk and rarely produces flowers or aerial bulb heads. The soft leaves allow for this garlic to be easily braided. Softneck garlic produces large bulbs with a high number of cloves that are often arranged in layers and covered with papery tunic. This type can be further dived into two subgroups, silverskin types, which store well and have a smooth, silvery white bulb covering, and artichoke types, which have distinctly overlapping cloves.
In contrast, hardneck garlic, also called top neck, ophioscorodon or serpent garlic, has a woody base and flower stalks which typically curve or coil. It readily produces ball-like flower clusters or bulbil heads. The leaves are smooth on the edge and the bulbs are smaller with a single layer of uniform cloves arranged around the central stem. Hardneck garlic requires cold winter weather for best production. This type is broken in to three subgroups: rocambole, which has large cloves and tan skin; porcelain, a type that produces few but very large cloves; and purple stripe with its colorful papery skin.
Garlic is easy to grow and should be planted in fall, before the soil freezes, for a harvest in late spring or early summer of the next year. Where winters are severe and summers mild, plant the cloves in early spring for harvest in fall. Garlic bulbs grow and divide in response to long summer days, it produces new cloves at its base that enlarge to form a bulb before the flower stalk appears. The bulb will be larger if the flower stalk is removed before flowering.
Garlic grows best in full sun and average to fertile, well-drained soil. It has almost no pests and needs little attention during the growing, aside from supplemental watering during dry spells. It can be harvested at three times in the year: The fresh greens can be harvested in spring, the flavorful flower stalks can be harvested in early summer and the bulbs are typically harvested in mid to late-summer. Care should be taken when harvesting the bulbs. Lift them carefully with a garden fork or spade. Never pull them. Allow the bulbs to cure in a cool, dry, dark place until the skin is dry and papery. Once cured, bulbs last for months--especially softneck types. Reserve enough cloves to replant for the next cycle of growth and harvest.