Something we heard over and over again at the Farmers Market last year is that people have no idea where garlic comes from. I can't feign much shock as I didn't know myself until a few years ago, but it has quickly become one of our favorite crops; the difference in flavor between home-grown garlic and grocery store stuff is enormous. Add to that the fact that it's very low maintenance, incredibly cold-hardy (it's the only thing we grow that requires absolutely no row cover whatsoever), and a natural bug repellent, we went ahead and increased the size of this year's crop by half.
We buy organic garlic "seed" from Peaceful Valley. We considered saving our own seed from last year's crop, but... we eated it (worth it). Anyway, garlic comes in two broad categories: softneck and hardneck. Your regular grocery store garlic are generally softneck varieties and are usually grown in mild climates like California. Hardnecks are mostly grown in cooler climates (although they did pretty well for us down here last year) and have a very stiff stem in the center of the bulb. They tend to be more flavorful, but don't store as long as softnecks. Hardnecks also send up an edible (and delicious) flowering stalk called a scape in the spring (this will happen in May for us).
The planting process is simple. The seeds arrive as whole bulbs of garlic that look just like what you'd buy at the grocery store. In October, we break the bulbs apart into individual cloves (leaving the peel and all intact), soak them in a little seaweed to wake 'em up, and plant them root side down a couple inches deep. Next year we need to moisten the rows a little more before planting, jamming those cloves down into the tough too-dry dirt left our thumbs sore for weeks. Cover up, water (sparingly, as overwatering can cause them to rot), and wait about eight months. Yes, that's right. We plant every bulb by hand, and they take eight months to mature.
The only tricky part to growing garlic is in the harvest. Pull them too early and the cloves won't be fully formed. Pull them too late, and the overgrown cloves will burst the bulb and they won't store well. I've read several tricks for figuring out when to harvest, but the only thing that works for us is yanking one and cutting it in half to see if the cloves are full. Easy to do when you have a couple thousand bulbs, but probably a little painful for the home gardener that only has a couple dozen. But remember, that sacrificial bulb is totally edible; just wash it well and pop it into a zip top bag it the fridge, dicing off chunks of it whenever you need garlic.
Once they appear to be mature, we pull them all up and lay them out on mesh tables to dry for a couple weeks. Stored properly in a dry cool spot, they keep for months.
This year, the majority of our crop are California Early White and California Late White softnecks. As for hardnecks, we chose Metechi, Spanish Roja, German Red, Chesnok, and Kilarney Red. Here's what they look like right now, about 3 months after planting. The California Early White are the bushiest, which makes sense because they'll be the first to mature:
These are the California Late White:
And all the heirloom hardnecks do this funny looking thing:
Once it starts to warm up, they'll start putting out leaves like crazy and get up to two feet tall. I'll keep you posted!