Garlic is grown in many climates and cultures for its pungent flavor and its health benefits. Different types of garlic thrive in different conditions and have different qualities. This article will help you pick a garlic variety that’s right for your climate and your cooking needs.
There are three basic types of garlic. Hardneck and softneck are different varieties of true garlic (Allium sativum). Elephant garlic, so-called, is technically a leek (Allium ampeloprasum). There are many varieties within the three broad types. You may want to consult your local Cooperative Extension about varieties suited to your region. You could also get garlic from a local grower.
I started by planting garlic cloves from two local growers of hardneck garlic. Over the past twenty years, I have saved seed garlic from my best plants. I don’t know the variety names of the parent plants or of what I have now, but I know it grows well where I am. I also know that it’s a Rocambole-type hardneck: that is an important piece of information for harvest and storage.
Many experts warn against planting cloves of garlic from the grocery store, as they may have grown in incompatible climates.
Hardneck garlic is also called ophio garlic or bolting garlic. It produces a hard seed stalk in the center of the plant before the bulb reaches maturity. If you pinch these stalks off while they’re still young and tender, you’ll get garlic scapes to use in stir-fries, soups, pesto, etc. Allowed to mature, the stalks will produce bulbils that resemble miniature garlic cloves. Hardneck garlic generally produces a single ring of 6-10 cloves.
Where It Grows Best
Cooperative Extension writers from several Northern states recommend hardneck garlic because it is better able to survive cold winters.
The Georgia Cooperative Extension advises growers in their warm climate to avoid hardneck garlic because it can bolt early in erratic winters However, an NC Extension specialist says that gardeners in their moderately warm climate can also grow hardneck garlic (German extra hardy) and makes some suggestions about the most suitable softneck varieties that include the Italian varieties and New York whiteneck.
The Music variety of garlic is a hardneck variety of garlic with large heads and a full flavor. It is also reported to be extremely hardy and good for new growers.
Image Source: Burpee Gardening
Pros and Cons
I’ve found Washington State garlic farmer Ron Engeland’s book “Growing Great Garlic” useful as a guide to cultivation. He says that hardneck garlic tends to be more flavorful and easier to peel than softneck. Extension sites add that hardneck garlics tend to have larger cloves
On the other hand, it’s generally agreed that softneck garlic is easier to grow and has a longer storage life. I’ve grown hardneck garlic in my garden in northern New York, zone 5, and it’s one of my easiest crops. But even when it’s properly cured and stored, it tends to get soft and sprout by April or May. This means that I have to store my garlic for the early summer months in the freezer. I’ve never tried softneck garlic.
Subtypes of hardneck garlic include Rocambole, Music, Porcelain, and Purple Stripe. (There are different cultivars within each of these groups.) Rocambole garlic can be distinguished by its tightly coiled seed stalks. Rutgers University says that Porcelain garlic has larger cloves and Rocambole a milder flavor.
According to Engeland, Rocambole has a particularly intense flavor and a particularly short storage life. It lasts three to four months (six to eight if it’s well grown and cured). He also says that it’s fussy about soil. However, it’s thrived in our stony sandy soil (amended with all the compost I can spare). He describes Purple and Porcelain as best adapted to cold winter climates and as lasting four to eight months in storage.)
Softneck garlic is sometimes called Italian garlic. It does not form a hard seed stalk unless it is stressed. Plants may produce a few bulbils low among their leaves, or may not produce bulbils at all. Each head includes 12-20 cloves arranged in 3-6 layers.
Where It Grows Best
The Georgia Cooperative Extension recommends softneck garlic because it doesn’t bolt (divert its energy into seed production) easily and it holds well in the erratic temperatures of Southern winters. Some Northern Extension writers don’t recommend attempting to grow softneck since it is less cold-hardy, but a writer from the Extension in Massachusetts says that some softneck varieties can be grown in their cool climate.
Pros and Cons
If you want to braid your garlic, you’ll need to grow a softneck variety: hardneck plants are too stiff for braiding.
Softneck garlic is easier to grow (at least in relatively warm climates) than hardneck, and it lasts longer in storage.
On the other hand, softneck garlic tends to be harder to peel and less flavorful than hardneck, and its cloves tend to be smaller.
Silverskin garlic has pale narrow upright leaves, thin pale bulb wrappers, and weak necks. It is high-yielding and easy to grow in a range of soils and climates. Silverskins may form a flower stalk if they are stressed by drought or cold. This type works well for braiding. Ron Engeland says silverskins are the best for long storage, lasting six to twelve months.
Artichoke garlic has a mild flavor. Its tight-skinned cloves are hard to peel but have a long storage life. Plants often produce large bulbils low on a soft stem. They may also develop a hard stem if they are stressed.
It is broadly adapted to different soils and climates and will store for six to nine months.
The types of softneck garlic known as Creole, Early, Louisiana, or White Mexican are not cold-hardy enough for the NC climate.
Elephant garlic is not a true garlic but a leek. However, it produces cloves that look like garlic cloves and have a mild garlic flavor.
Each head typically contains only 3 to 6 cloves whose large size gives this type its name. The plant’s naturally mild flavor may turn sharp in cold climates. In very cold regions it may produce one undivided bulb like a pearl onion rather than dividing into cloves.
Elephant garlic may develop a bitter flavor. Like hardneck garlic, elephant forms flower stalks; the lower parts of the seed stalk can be used in stir-fries and other dishes. Extension articles from Georgia, Kentucky, and Oregon discuss growing elephant garlic along with other garlic types. I haven’t tried it myself or seen it discussed in publications from colder climates.
Each type of garlic comes with its own unique advantages and disadvantages. This article can give you a starting point for deciding which type will suit your climate and your needs best. After that, experiment and see what you find least frustrating and most satisfying. Good luck, and bon appetit!