My wife Nancy and I will be buying garlic this year for the first time in about a dozen years. Back then, we bought garlic bulbs for planting, and every year since I’ve saved the largest four or five bulbs to plant for the following year’s crop.

This year, though, we didn’t produce any large bulbs – nothing big enough to plant, anyhow; they were large enough to use in cooking.

I called Kip Penney, coordinator of bulb sales (including garlic) at Fedco seeds in Clinton, to see where I went wrong.

The short answer? Worried about garden space, I planted the cloves too close together last fall.

“You need 6 to 8 inches between the cloves,” Penney said. “If you put them 4 inches apart, the roots don’t have space to spread out and feed themselves.” He knows one woman who puts her cloves 10 inches apart and regularly gets garlic bulbs that are 2.5 to 3 inches in diameter.

It didn’t help that our garlic was partially shaded by our sugar snap peas and some volunteer annual poppies.

So, here are the basic planting instructions up front, in case you are planting bulbs you saved from this year’s crop and would like to profit from my mistake. In October or November, place garlic cloves, pointy side up, deep enough so you can cover them with 2 inches of soil, at least 6 but preferably more inches apart; I’ve planted in December when I forgot, and it worked, but it’s not recommended. If you are planting in rows, make them at least a foot apart. Cover the buried cloves with six inches of mulch (pine needles or leaves work fine for us) and remove the mulch in spring.

“The general instruction is to feed them, weed them and give them space,” Penney said.

But what should we buy? All I remember from our first purchase – based on an interview with a man who started a garlic festival on Mount Desert Island – is that they were a German hardneck, which we bought at a local store. There are a lot of German hardnecks, I found out from Penney, and I don’t know which one it was.

He didn’t give me any definite advice. “I like most of them,” he said, “but I am in business to sell them.”

Fedco offers about a dozen varieties, with further choices based on whether they are certified organic or ecologically grown. Ecologically grown bulbs are the same as organic ones, Penney said, but the ecological growers haven’t gone through the cost and hassle of getting certified organic.

For his own kitchen, he likes the porcelain types, as do most growers who sell at farmers markets. They have four or five cloves per bulb, which means larger cloves. Georgian Crystal seems to get larger than many others.

Rocambole varieties also get to be a good size, but they have between seven and 12 cloves per bulb, which means that the cloves will be smaller. I think the garlic I have been growing has been a rocambole, because it had quite a few cloves per bulb.

Georgian Fire and Georgian Crystal, both porcelain bulbs, seem hotter than the others when eaten raw, but they all mellow out when cooked, Penney said.

Softneck garlic does not do as well in Maine’s cold climate, and it has a bit less garlic flavor than the hardnecks, according to Penney. In addition, softnecks grow differently from hardnecks, in that they don’t produce scapes.

Scapes are round, curly growths that, if left in place, produce flowers and then seeds on hardneck varieties. Standard practice is to cut off the scapes when they first appear in June or July so the plant’s energy goes into producing larger bulbs.

The scapes themselves have a good garlic flavor and can be used for salads and for cooking. If you put the scapes in a brown paper bag and put the bag in a refrigerator, blossoms on the scape continue to develop and produce bulbils that can be tossed into a salad without peeling – or you can plant them if you want to go that route. The bulbils should be ready in September and will last into October, although the greens might get yellow and/or mushy by then.

Some people leave the scapes on a few garlic plants, Penney said. When the scape uncurls and stands up straight, typically in August, the garlic is ready to harvest.

Penney said that some buyers complain that the seed-garlic bulbs are expensive – most cost from $13 to $15 for three bulbs – they’re cheaper if people buy by the pound. But all of the garlic sold by Fedco has to be tested – usually at the University of Maine – to ensure it’s disease free. In addition, you don’t have to buy bulbs every year – every summer just save some for planting in the subsequent year.

After talking with Penney, Nancy and I ordered Fedco’s garlic sampler for $41. We’ll get three bulbs each of softneck, porcelain, rocambole and marbled purple stripe – although the specific variety is not listed.

Next year, I’ll let you know which ones did best.

ABOUT THE WRITER

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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