Although fresh, store-bought garlic is far superior to the powdered variety, the nuances in flavor, heat and character of homegrown, handpicked garlic nurtured to maturity in your own garden will be worth the wait. Before you get started, there are a few things you should know.
All true garlics, members of the onion family, are classified as either "softneck" (allium sativum sativum) or "hardneck" (allium sativum ophioscorodon) varieties; within these broad categories, garlic is subdivided into eight distinct groups: Artichoke, Asiatic, Creole, Porcelain, Purple Stripe (including glazed and marbled purple stripe), Rocambole, Silverskin and Turban.
Hardnecks are also known as "bolting" varieties of garlic: They send up a false (seedless) flower stalk called a "scape" in the spring. Some hardneck varieties grow scapes that form multiple loops in the stalk as they grow (giving rise to nicknames like "serpent garlic"), while others create a less-dramatic showing, simply drooping or bending towards the ground in graceful curves. Most gardeners pull or clip garlic scapes to redirect the plant's energy into forming a larger bulb, but Tamra Feenstra, who has been growing garlic in Cottonwood Heights since 2000, found that removing the scapes didn't impact the size of the bulbs, but it did decrease their shelf life.
If you do choose to remove the scapes before they mature, don't toss them. Scapes are edible; tender and delicious when harvested young, they make a flavorful pesto and can impart a delicate garlic flavor to salads, soups and stir-fries. If the scape is allowed to go to flower, tiny seed garlic called "bulbils" will form inside the flower head. Bulbils are edible, but they can also be planted, producing full-sized bulbs in two or three years.
Generally speaking, softneck garlics perform better in warmer climates, although all garlic is highly adaptable over time. Hardneck varieties are more closely tied to their wild ancestors: In addition to thriving in frigid winter climates, they still make an effort to self-propagate, something softnecks have given up on after years of domestication. Each group offers different characteristics, and some will be better suited to your tastes than others.
Softnecks produce layers of cloves that get progressively smaller towards the center of the bulb, can easily be braided and stored through the winter, and have a milder, less complex flavor. Hardnecks usually produce a smaller number of larger cloves, store for a shorter period of time and have a stronger, hotter flavor. If this is your first venture into garlic growing, you might want to select some of each.
French White • Cottonwood Heights gardener's Tamra Feenstra's favorite softneck variety, French White, a member of the Silverskin group, is popular for its large bulbs and lengthy storage life. Highly flavorful, it's also great for braiding.
Red Toch/Tochliavri • A German softneck and member of the Artichoke group, this variety offers a taste that's neither too hot nor too mild but with a spicy bite. Red Toch typically has 12–18 cloves per bulb.
Inchelium Red • This native American strain (also a member of the Artichoke group) comes from the Colville Indian Reservation in Inchelium, Wash. Its large, layered bulbs can have as many as 20 cloves, and it keeps remarkably well. Mild in flavor, it's perfect roasted or added to mashed potatoes.
Brown Tempest (Mango Sunrise) • In the Purple Stripe group, this good producer is Feenstra's favorite hardneck, with 5–9 plump cloves in each bulb. The wrapper can be purple to brown, with flecks of gold. Sandhill Farms calls it "strikingly beautiful" and "creamy and rich" when baked.
German Red • A member of the Rocambole group, these varieties are the most sensitive to overwatering but grow exceptionally well in the cold. Known for its fawn-colored wrapper, German Red generally has 8 to 9 large, satiny white and purple cloves and is particularly easy to peel. Harvested mid-season, it can be stored until the following June if kept cool and dry. Like other Rocamboles, German Red is full-bodied and spicy, but Bill Masslich at First Frost Farms says roasting it brings out its rich, sweet flavor.
Music/Musick/Corona Music • Randy Hed, of Blue Spring Farm in Bothwell, favors the "rich, sweet, pungent flavor" of Music (a Porcelain). The wrapper has a hint of pink or purple, and the 4 to 7 huge cloves could be mistaken for medium-sized elephant garlic (which is actually more closely related to a leek). One of the first hardnecks to bolt and mature, Music is not as spicy as German Red, but it's one of the best for baking and roasting.
Siberian • Siberian (a member of the Purple Stripe group) is a favorite of Masslich and of Sandhill Farms, as it thrives in cold weather. With wrappers ranging from light pink to mahogany and with 5 to 9 giant purple-streaked cloves, Siberian is a feast for the eyes. Its very high allicin content possibly the highest of any garlic gives it great medicinal value, and its earthy, creamy texture makes it a fine choice for garlic spreads.
Emily Hodgson-Soule and Helen Hodgson