Answering questions at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, master gardener Regula Pepi says one thing is for sure about growing garlic, "It's nice to grow a different type than you get in the store."
Garlic comes in "tons" of varieties, says grower Teri White, owner of Runnymede Farm. At her stand in the market she offers five types: the sharply pungent Korean, the milder Chinese and Italian, and the plump Chesnok, with flavor between the extremes. The curiously named "music" is reputed to have "true garlic flavor, whatever that means," she says with a grin.
All of these varieties can be used for cooking or planting, as can some other varieties found in the growers market. Seed garlic also is available at local nurseries and through online sources. Planting season for this overwintering bulb is October into November, and easy-growing garlic is a great way for the novice to start year-round gardening.
Start with good drainage and a loose soil, add compost, mix in organic fertilizer according to package directions and smooth the planting surface.
"Separate the bulb into cloves right before you plant, not any sooner," says White. She takes each clove and presses it into the soil, so the tip is below the surface. The Jackson County Master Gardeners Association recommends planting 2 inches deep and 4 to 6 inches apart in rows 8 to 12 inches apart, producing a sizeable crop in a small space.
Any kind of mulch, including straw or leaves, can protect the bed. It's best to use the small cloves in the kitchen and plant only the large cloves, as these will produce correspondingly large bulbs.
On the topic of large cloves, the so-called "elephant garlic" is not garlic, but a leek. Plant it much deeper, 4 to 6 inches down, and add room between plants and in the row.
Your crop won't require much care until harvest, just an application of fertilizer again in early spring before the bulbs start growing.
The hardest job might be choosing which varieties to plant — note the plural. It's best to plant both hardneck and softneck varieties. Supermarkets sell softnecks. These are milder, mature first and are excellent keepers, holding up through the winter. Hardneck types have more pungent flavor, but don't keep well. If you want to make garlic braids, you must grow a softneck variety.
Elmer Harris, co-owner of Shady Cove's Elmer and Ruby's, offers "California late" at his stand. These large-cloved bulbs mature a little later than other softnecks, he says. The flavor is between hot and mild, and "that why I like it," says Harris.
Hardneck garlic produces two crops, if you count their "scapes," the flower tops, which are harvested in June. Harvest these curly shoots when the flower tip is the size of a candle flame. These can be sautéed, added to sauces and stir fries or made into a fresh pesto. While you are feasting, the bulb remains in the ground and will mature about a month later.
You can tell bulbs are mature when the tops fall over. When about half the crop is mature, bend over the rest of the tops and stop watering the crop, according to the Master Gardeners' "Garden Guide for the Rogue Valley." About a week later, when the shoot is limp above the bulb, pull or dig gently from the ground. Hang in the shade to cure, about another week.
Store garlic in a cool, dry place. Think "root-cellar" climate. White has a windowless cob shed that fits the bill perfectly, but few of us are that lucky. Perhaps there's some room in the wine cooler?