Garlic bulbs are like other bulbs that we plant in the fall for harvest the following year. There are two main categories of garlic varieties: stiff neck and soft neck. Soft neck varieties are the ones grown for making decorative braids. Stiff neck varieties are a little easier to grow and have the added benefit of shoots or "scapes" which is explained in further detail below.
The best time to plant garlic in Vermont is late October or early November. The best garlic to plant is from seed stock grown on a farm near you since it will be accustomed to the conditions of your immediate area. It can be hard to procure good quality seed stock and a fine alternative is to plant eating stock purchased at a health food store or coop in your area. Ask for something grown locally. Seed stock is a higher grade, generally speaking, than table stock and is a little pricier. The benefit of planting seed stock is that you will most likely end up with larger heads of garlic with fewer defects. However, table stock is more readily available and a little cheaper allowing the gardener to plant extra garlic which can be harvested the following year and used as both seed stock and table stock. It is very satisfying to grow out garlic to replant thereby seeing the affects of your personal touch and the improvements that can be selected from year to year.
To plant the garlic, choose nice symmetrical heads first and then break them up into individual cloves. Each clove should be planted about 6" apart and about 4" below the surface of the soil, root end down. A bulb planting tool can be handy here, but if the soil is worked deeply and loosely, your hands will suffice as a planting tool. The rows of garlic should be about 12" apart. Once the garlic is planted, top dress with an inch or two of good quality compost. Later, as the ground cools, it is best to mulch the planted garlic with about 6" of straw. This is an important step which keeps the soil from heaving up and pushing the cloves out of the ground.
The following spring, push back the straw when shoots are first coming out of the ground. At first, the plants might look a little yellow from being under the mulch, but they will quickly green up as they take in the sunshine. They can handle a heavy frost, so do not worry about recovering the plants in cold weather. It's a good idea to save the mulch by putting it in the walk ways alongside the garlic bed; it can be reused to mulch the garlic once the plants are tall enough to stick up above the straw.
In June, stiff-neck garlic will form a "scape." This is the stem of the flower bud and needs to be removed for best garlic production: by removing the flowering parts of the plant, you encourage the energy to go into the formation of the bulbs. The scapes are delicious to eat in stir fries or other vegetable dishes and roasts.
The garlic is ready to harvest when a little more than half of the leaves have fully yellowed. In norther Vermont, this is often in the third week of July or so, however, this is somewhat subjective and depends on the weather. If it is a very rainy summer, it is best to harvest a little early so that the papery skins do not rot. Once harvested, the garlic should be wiped clean of excess dirt and tied up in bundles of 10 or so plants. These bundles can be hung in an airy, dark place and left to cure for a few weeks. Once fully dried, the stems and roots can be snipped off; the remainder of the dirt can be brushed off and the garlic can be stored. It is best stored in very cool, dry conditions in the dark. Too much moisture or light will encourage early sprouting. Stored properly, the garlic can be eaten until the folowing spring.
Image from Madison and Mayberry, Creative Commons license.