There are dozens of readily available cultivars of garlic, but few of us stop to consider the one most basic factor when deciding what garlic to grow: the difference between hardneck and softneck garlic. 

It’s not just that the bulbs of hardneck and softneck garlic form differently, they taste different, and perform better or worse depending on conditions. This straightforward guide focuses on the subtle difference between each type of garlic, to help you choose which is right for you.

Garlic grows in two ways: with scapes, and without. Scapes are the flowering stems of garlic, which emerge either in their second growing year or as a result of hot, dry conditions. Their flowers are gorgeous globes, like any allium, and will eventually set seed, or produce bulbils. 

Hardneck garlic has a firm stem running directly upwards from the root plate, and concentric cloves within each bulb. Each clove produces a single tall leaf, which wraps around the central stem.

Hardneck garlic is a tougher plant, and actively benefits from a prolonged cold spell over winter. The cloves are larger, and more evenly formed, making them easier to prepare. In my experience, most hardneck garlic also has a stronger flavor, so a little goes a long way.

Softneck garlic does not produce a scape, or central stem, and instead develops unevenly spaced cloves around one or two larger cloves in the center. Each clove develops from the same root plate and produces a single upright leaf.

Softneck garlic isn’t tender but needs planting a little later than hardneck varieties. In fact, it’s better to plant softneck garlic in late winter, or early spring, just before the last frost.

Softneck garlic is easier to grow than hardneck garlic. It has a short growing time, can be planted later and has no chance of bolting. However, it’s harder to store and can rot while curing.

There are some fundamentals of growing garlic that will never change, like spacing, watering, and how you cure them. The big difference is when you plant them, and when to harvest hardneck or softneck garlic.

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1. When to plant hardneck Vs softneck garlic

The best time to plant hardneck garlic is in the fall. This gives hardneck garlic enough time to start growing ahead of any winter frosts, which it will need to grow properly in its second year. 

Planting softneck garlic varies depending on where you live. In cooler climates, simply plant them in early spring, a few weeks before the last frost. The cold will trigger growth, and they’ll happily be ready for harvest in the fall (just in time to plant hardneck garlic again!).

In warmer climates, either plant garlic in mid-winter to make the most of cold weather, or store bulbs and cloves in a fridge for two weeks before planting in early spring to mimic a cold winter.

2. How to prepare hardneck and softneck garlic for planting

Whether you’re planting hardneck garlic in fall, or softneck garlic in spring, start with a bulb. Using a sharp knife, separate each clove, carefully trying not to cut the clove, or damage their skins. Keep a small piece of root plate attached to each. And that’s it – garlic ready to plant.

By keeping the root plate intact, the risk of infection is vastly reduced, and by storing them on a bulb, they are less likely to rot before planting.

3. Planting position for hardneck and softneck garlic

Finding the right spot for any garlic is important. Soil, sun, and drainage are key factors, as well as where to plant garlic in a crop rotation

Firstly, full sun is absolutely essential. While garlic will store in the ground through winter, it won’t grow to its full potential without full spring and summer sun.

When you’ve found a good position, garlic needs light, friable (fluffy, fine, and granular) soil to grow happily, so enriching your soil every year is important. If you’re growing garlic in a raised bed, make sure they are well-drained, as it can rot quickly if left in standing water or boggy soils.

4. How to space hardneck or softneck garlic

All types of garlic should be planted 4 to 6 inches apart. The bigger the clove, the wider the spacing. As they develop they produce a surprising amount of roots, so planting closer than that will create unnecessary competition and result in undersized bulbs.

Both hardneck and softneck garlic cloves need to be planted 3” deep, or 3x their depth (whichever is more). 

  • Tip: In colder climates, hardneck garlic should be planted slightly deeper, but no more than 5” deep, to protect it from extreme frosts.

5. Watering schedule for hardneck and softneck garlic

Watering hardneck and softneck garlic is a straightforward process, and in almost all climates, the following routine can be used for reliably healthy bulbs:

  • Water cloves in really well when first planted, regardless of the weather or time of year.
  • Maintain reasonable soil moisture until green shoots emerge.
  • Stop watering unless the soil dries out at the surface.
  • Stop watering two weeks before harvest, when 25% of leaves turn brown or papery white.

Garlic is very susceptible to root rot, particularly once the bulb is mature and nearing harvest time. Keeping the soil lightly moist, but the surface loose and friable is the aim.

6. Harvesting hardneck and softneck garlic

Two weeks before harvest time, stop watering garlic, and cut off any scapes on hardneck varieties. This focuses energy back into the bulb and forces the cloves to drink up any moisture left in the foliage.

This pre-harvest routine helps to cure the garlic bulbs ready for storage and increased their size. Once 50% of the top growth has turned dry, brown, or white, it’s time to dig them up. Carefully dig up the entire plant, and do not cut the leaves off!

  • Tip: If you’re doing this in the summer, your soil may be dry, making the garlic harder to harvest without damaging its skins. I like to use this weeding hand tool to carefully loosen the soil around each garlic plant.

7. Curing hardneck and softneck garlic

After harvesting garlic, it needs time to cure before it’s ready for storage. Curing is a simple process of drying the garlic bulbs, which are ready to store as soon as every single leaf is completely dry, and looks like thin paper. 

At that point, you can either plait the tops to create an ornamental garlic plait, or cut the leaves and stems away and store the bulbs somewhere cool, dry, and dark for up to six months.

Hardneck garlic has thicker skins and fewer but larger cloves. That makes hardneck garlic significantly easier to store, and plaiting is easier thanks to the dried scapes. Softneck garlic can be tricky to store and needs to be kept as dry as possible.

There are six different groups of hardneck garlic, all well worth trying, and each has dozens of cultivars with their own unique appeal. 

  • The mellow Rocambole garlic doesn’t store well but is easy to prepare, without the sulfurous, eye-watering intensity of other hardneck types. 
  • Purple stripe garlic is closely related to old-fashioned garlic and will produce viable seeds on its scapes. Avoid the temptation to keep them though, as more seeds mean smaller cloves!
  • My personal favorite is Porcelain garlic, which has a particularly strong flavor and grows beautifully well even after a 6” covering of heavy snow. Romanian Red is one of the most beautiful bulbs you can grow, for flavor as well as storage.
  • Asiatic garlic has short scapes with a stunningly warm flavor that spreads through any dish without the need to chop. Simply drop the entire cloves into a sauce and leave it to infuse through cooking. 
  • Turban garlic is small but well formed with vibrant purple skins, and tender pink skin on each clove. It can be used raw as a spicy garnish but mellows when cooked. 
  • Creole garlic is originally from Spain, so grows brilliantly in any reasonably warm but temperature climate, and doesn’t mind some occasional heavy rain. If you plan on plaiting garlic as an ornamental addition to the kitchen, Rose De Lautrec looks just stunning when properly prepared. 

There are significantly fewer groups of softneck garlic, due entirely to the fact that they are a more modern cultivar. The two types are called, simply, Artichoke and Silverskin garlic.

  • Artichoke garlic grows pretty much everywhere, with varieties well suited for cooler climates, like Transylvanian Softneck, and those bred specifically for warmer gardens, like California Early.
  • Silverskin garlic I the most widely grown commercial garlic variety in the world thanks to how simple it is to propagate and grow in nearly every possible climate, from snowy Scotland, down to Mediterranean Greece.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, why not try growing elephant garlic? It’s technically a leek, but with a gorgeously subtle garlic flavor and gigantic bulbs for a late summer or early fall harvest.

Whatever garlic you decide to grow this year, make sure it’s planted at the right time, not overwatered, and not overfed, and don’t worry too much if you see scapes developing early in the year. Just cut them off, and rest assured, it’s hardneck garlic, not softneck!

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