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Give garlic a try in your fall garden

Garlic is propagated by planting cloves, and fall is the perfect time to plant.
Garlic is propagated by planting cloves, and fall is the perfect time to plant. Centre Daily Times, file

I was speaking with Lauren Abersold and Liz Egan about the culinary and health benefits of using garlic when I stopped by the Penn State Plant Science Department the other day. Since this is the perfect time to plant garlic, I thought that some additional information on growing garlic would be appropriate.

Garlic (Allium sativum) is a species in the onion family, which includes onion, shallot, leek and chive. Garlic should be planted in late September or October so it will be well rooted by November. Garlic should not be planted less than 4-inches apart in rows 16-18 inches apart. Plant it vertically 1-2 inches deep. Growth will resume in the spring and the crop will mature in August. While plant survival with spring plantings may be greater, the growing period before bulbing may be too short for satisfactory yields.

Garlic is propagated by planting cloves, which are the small bulblets or segments making up the whole garlic bulb. A large garlic bulb will contain about 10 cloves and all cloves can be planted except those that are less than 1 gram in weight, and those that have any side growth. The cloves, or young growing plants, must be exposed to cold temperatures between 32 and 50 degrees for one or two months to initiate bulbing. With fall plantings, the cold treatment is accomplished quite naturally throughout the winter.

When the tops become partly dry and bend to the ground, garlic is usually ready to harvest. The bulbs are pulled and can be cured (thoroughly dry) in a well-ventilated shed or garage.

After curing, diseased and damaged bulbs should be discarded. The remaining bulbs should be cleaned to remove the outer loose portions of the sheath and the roots should be trimmed off close to the bulb. The bulbs may be braided or bunched together by their tops, or the tops and roots may be cut off and bulbs bagged like dry onions.

Garlic is best stored under the temperature and humidity conditions required for onions (32 to 60 degrees and 70 percent relative humidity). Garlic gloves will sprout quickly after bulbs have been stored at temperatures near 40 degrees, so prolonged storage in this range should be avoided. Garlic stored at humidities above 70 percent at any temperature will not only mold but will begin to develop roots.

Garlic is divided into two broad categories: hardneck garlic and softneck garlic. In the case of softneck garlic, these varieties are better keepers that can be stored for longer periods of time while maintaining their quality. Softneck garlic varieties also have flexible stems or stalks that allow these garlics to be used to create fancy garlic braids and wreaths. Hardneck garlic varieties are better known for their wide range of delicious flavors and the gourmet qualities that they exhibit in the kitchen. They produce larger cloves that are easier to separate and peel, making them popular with gourmet chefs. Hardneck varieties don’t keep in storage quite as long, will produce edible garlic scapes during summer, and are not suitable for braiding or creating garlic wreaths.

Give garlic a try and enjoy using your own garlic in your cooking next year.

Bill Lamont is a Penn State professor emeritus in the department of plant science and can be reached by e-mail at wlamont@psu.edu.