Each garlic bulb consists of many individual cloves. Each of these cloves has the potential of growing into a single garlic plant, forming a new bulb. Those new bulbs will have multiple cloves with each of those able to grow and develop into a plant. In that way, garlic is a self-sustaining plant that doesn't require pollinators or other special propagation methods. That simplicity makes garlic easy to grow in the garden.
What makes garlic different from many other vegetable crops is that it is best planted in the fall. Cold temperatures are needed to initiate the growth of the buds that will form into cloves. The plant will overwinter in the soil and emerge in spring. Bulbs will continue to grow in size until they're ready to harvest in early to late summer. You can get away with very early spring planting in some areas, but the bulbs may not fully develop by harvest time.
Choosing what kind of garlic to grow may seem daunting when you look at a catalog (Territorial Seed Company offers 29 different ones), but it really comes down to a simple choice. There are just two basic garlic types: soft neck and hard neck.
Chances are if you bought garlic in a store it was a soft neck variety. This is the garlic that tastes like garlic. Softneck garlic has a white, papery skin, has many cloves around a central core, and keeps well for a long time, up to nine months. The plant stalk is flexible and allows the bulbs to be braided together, a decorative method of storing them. There are many types of softneck garlic with "silverskin" and "artichoke" being the most common.
Hardneck garlic can be found at some specialty chef and food stores. Many different flavors and colors exist. The bulbs have fewer cloves than soft neck and may not have any skin around them. They're less hardy and have a shorter shelf life than soft neck varieties. They're called hardneck garlic because the stalk is not flexible and remains rigid. The three main types of hardneck garlic are "purple stripe", "rocambole", and "porcelain".
Generally, for most home gardeners I recommend growing softneck varieties. This is the garlic you're familiar with, will store best after harvest, and the soft stalks are fun to braid and look cool hanging on the kitchen wall. Hard neck garlic can be finicky when it comes to weather and may not survive extreme conditions. The lack of an outer paper skin means you need to handle them with more care, though they are easier to peel when it comes time to cook.
You can grow purple, red, blue, and pink garlic. There are mild ones and spicy ones. You'll find little ones and big ones. But not all types will do well in your garden. Some varieties do better in cold regions while some do better in warm. Some garlic is ready for harvest in early summer while some isn't ready until late. With a little research you can find a garlic that meets your specific taste and growing requirements. Or you can go with common varieties that do well in many gardens.
When you seek garlic in a nursery or online site, you'll probably find names like Early Italian, Spanish Roja, and Inchelium Red. Those are among the three most popular varieties. I've ordered Inchelium Red for planting in my garden in about a month; it is a national taste-test winner. Spanish Roja is the most popular hardneck variety with a taste many consider truly garlicky. Popular Italian Late, Oregon Blue, and Susanville are softneck varieties that range from pungent to mild in taste.
"Elephant Garlic" is quite popular because it produces bulbs as big as a softball, but it is not true garlic. It is related more to leeks than to garlic. Though it looks like a big garlic clove and the assumption is that it will have a strong garlic flavor, it is actually more subtle. Just as a leek is milder tasting than an onion, elephant garlic is milder than regular garlic.
Ordering online is an easy way to get your bulbs but you can also find them in nurseries and garden centers. When selecting bulbs for planting, they should be dry, plump, and firm. Soft and spongy or dry and crumbly bulbs should be avoided. Choose ones that don't have a green shoot appearing from the top; those are older and may not do as well when planted.
You can take cloves from standard bulbs you buy in the supermarket, plant them, and they may grow. However, unless they're labeled as organic they were probably sprayed with a chemical to keep them from sprouting while in transit and storage. That same chemical can keep them from sprouting in your garden. Also, they were probably grown in California or China in weather and climate different from yours.
Ask your fellow gardeners, your Extension office, or the folks at the nursery for which garlic does best in your area. Many sources can give background information about varieties you may be interested in. Inchelium Red was discovered on the Colville Indian reservation in northern Washington, an area near my father and his wife's home. I chose it because of that connection, because of its taste, and because it can handle cold winters.
Take a little time and look into the garlic varieties available to you locally and online. Find one or two that interest you and make a purchase. A single bulb will probably have between six and 16 cloves that you can plant. Think about how much garlic you typically use and plan accordingly. You may only need two or three bulbs to provide enough garlic at harvest to last you for many months.
In a few weeks I'll write again about how to plant garlic, how to protect it from weather, how it grows, and how to harvest. For now choose what you'll plant.