Garlic is the least work of any vegetable I grow: I plant it, mulch it, harvest it. Some years I need to weed it once, too. But properly mulched in a weed-free bed, little or no weeding is required. And it's essentially free; I will plant next year's crop from this year's harvest. October is the time to plant.
I've been growing my own garlic for decades, and each year I plant the biggest, best looking bulbs. Over time I've been able to develop varieties that work best in my climate and my soil.
There are two types of garlic: hard-neck and soft neck. Soft neck garlic is the kind you generally find at the grocery store, and some of it now comes from China, which I try to avoid as I don't trust their use of chemicals. Most soft-neck garlic is pretty much the same in terms of flavor. It stores well but soft neck garlic is adapted for growing in warmer climates, so I don't recommend it for New England.
Hard-neck garlic is so named because each bulb has a stiff stem that is surrounded by the cloves. There are several distinct types (purple striped, Porcelain, and Rocambole, among others) and each has its own distinct flavor. Just as not all tomatoes taste the same, not all garlic is the same.
Plant garlic by separating the cloves of a head or bulb of garlic and planting it in rich soil well amended with compost and a little organic fertilizer. Cloves should be planted about two inches deep, pointy end up. Space them three to four inches apart in rows that are eight to 12 inches apart. Grocery store garlic has probably been treated to prevent sprouting, so do not plant it.
Here is the key to success: mulch your garlic bed well with straw or mulch hay when you plant. A six- to 12-inch layer of well fluffed mulch hay accomplishes two things. First, it insulates the ground as the cloves of garlic get their roots started. The soil is warm now and the roots will grow until the soil freezes. You want as much root growth now as possible, and the mulch will hold in the heat. Second, the mulch will keep weeds down next summer. Garlic doesn't compete well with weeds, so keeping it mulched keeps it happy.
Your fall-planted garlic will establish its roots and may even send up shoots before snow flies, but don't worry about that. Come spring it will send up new leaves. Garlic will push up through your layer of mulch, but weeds generally won't.
The garlic scapes, or stems with flowers, will shoot up in mid-summer, twisting and turning in sculptural forms. Some gardeners believe that cutting the scapes will increase bulb size, though I have never noticed that it makes any difference. The scapes make wonderful components in flower arrangements, and are tasty in a stir fry.
Some herbalists say that you should smash or crush your garlic and then let the garlic rest for 10 minutes before putting it in the frying pan. They say that doing so allows garlic to release chemicals that help to prevent cancer. Who knows? For years now I have prepared it, set it aside, and let it rest before using. It can't hurt to do so.
Michael Phillips, a garlic and apple grower in Groveton, N.H., taught me that garlic needs to cure before you cut off the tops. Harvest it, and then let it hang in a cool dry location for a couple of weeks before you cut off the tops. He said the bulbs will reabsorb some of the nutrients in the stalk while it cures. I store my garlic on a wooden orchard rack I got from Gardeners Supply (www.gardeners.com) in a cool, dry location.
If you have excess garlic, here is a simple recipe that I love.
Roast Garlic with Goat Cheese on Toast: Peel several cloves of garlic — four or five for each dinner guest — and place in a small ceramic oven-proof baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with Herbes de Provence. Bake at 400 degrees for half an hour or until the garlic turns golden brown, soft, and slightly translucent. Toast slices of a baguette and spread with the now-soft garlic. Then spread feta or any soft cheese on top. You'll see that the sharpness of the garlic has disappeared. Yum!
Looking to buy some seed garlic? Try your local farm stand or farmers market. If none is available locally, you can get some organic garlic from High Mowing Seeds (www.highmowingseeds.com). They have several good varieties.
Garlic may not really keep away vampires, but it's so tasty and so easy to grow you should try it. Once you do, you'll grow it forever — and probably live longer for doing so.