Time to plant the garlic
Homegrown garlic is much like homegrown tomatoes — there is no comparison between “fresh from the garden” and supermarket-bought. Not to mention that this member of the onion family is so very easy to grow.
Garlic is always planted in the fall and harvested the following summer. Here in Western Pennsylvania, garlic is best planted during the month of October. Purchase garlic for planting from a specialty garlic farm or at your local farmer's market (grocery-store garlic is often treated with a sprouting inhibitor and will not grow).
To plant, crack open the heads to reveal the inner cloves; separate them and plant, pointy end up, 3 inches deep and 4 inches apart. Keep in mind that larger cloves will develop into larger heads so you may want to plant only the largest cloves and save the smaller for kitchen use.
Two main types of garlic exist: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck varieties do best in colder climates and peel easier. They also develop a flowering stem called a scape in the summer. It looks a bit like a green curlicue coming out of the foliage. This scape should be cut off as soon as it develops (they're delicious in stirfries and pesto!). If you don't remove the scape, the head will be significantly smaller upon maturity.
Bob Zimmerman, owner of Bobba-Mike's Garlic Farm in Orrville, Ohio, says that hardnecks are thought to have more flavor than softnecks. “We generally recommend hardnecks for planting, as they are very winter-hardy,” he says, “and they also have larger and fewer cloves than softnecks.”
There are hundreds of named varieties of hardneck garlic including Spanish Roja, Russian Giant, Chesnok Red and German White.
Softneck varieties are best for warmer climates and are the most common for mass production because they store well.
“Softnecks have many cloves in each head, including lots of smaller inner cloves,” Zimmerman says. Since they do not develop a scape and their stems stay soft, they are great for braiding.
Garlic is ready to harvest in mid-summer when the leaves are about 50 percent yellow. The bulbs are dug and cured in a warm, airy place for two to three weeks.
Zimmerman suggests storing garlic in a cool, dry place. “We recommend keeping it at 55 degrees F and 50 percent humidity. Good air circulation is critical.”
He also notes that hardnecks will generally store for up to six months while softnecks keep for up to nine.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.
Send your gardening or landscaping questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.