Growing garlic in Tucson (or anywhere for that matter) is always an experiment; one that does not always yield predictable results. But it is always rewarding. There is a huge difference between the diversity of garlic varieties and flavors available and what you find in the store. There are few places you can find the rocambole varieties of garlic (they don’t keep that well for one). And as with most crops, even with the standard “artichoke” type of garlic (which has many many varieties) there are only a few on the market. You DO occasionally find elephant garlic in the market, but not often. And honestly, though elephant garlic is fun to grow, it’s mild flavor really lends it to being mostly a novelty in my opinion. So it’s worth it to experiment and try out new garlics.
There is a LOT of confusion when it comes to the types of garlics, not just among home growers, but also among botanists and experts. I have entire books on garlic where the authors spend most of the time talking about the taxonomy and divisions of garlics. But it isn’t something to get crazy about. The easiest way to think about it is to know there are basically two types of true garlic: hardneck and softneck. Elephant garlic is not a true garlic, though we will talk about that here too.
Softneck garlics are the ones you are more familiar with (broken down into artichoke and silverskin). The silverskin types usually have more cloves per bulb and are sometimes sold as “Italian” or “Egyptian” garlic in the market.
Hardneck or ophioscorodon garlics are considered closer to the wild garlics and are broken down into a few main categories in the market: rocambole, porcelain, weakly bolting (this includes Asiatic, Turkish and Creole) and purple stripe. Hardneck garlics have a scape – a stalk which coils from the top which form bulbils (not flowers though people mistake them for that).
Pay the most attention to what you need: in Tucson that would mean garlics that can take mild winters (some garlics have chill requirements and are probably not appropriate for our relatively mild winter). Also look for interesting flavor qualities, sizes, and whatever else you need to diversify your food palate.
Elephant garlic is an entirely different animal. It was rediscovered in 1941 by a nurseryman from the Northwest. Jim Nicholls, who found it growing wild in the gardens of an abandoned Balkan immigrant settlement in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. It is relatively easier to grow than many garlics and the bulb gets HUGE. However, as said above, the flavor is way tamer. Some people may like this, but for me, I like good stinky garlic. I guess some people are afraid of a little garlic odor. But I think most clean people won’t wreak after eating good garlic, so long as you aren’t going hog wild, or eating a lot of raw garlic.
Garlic loves deep rich garden soil but doesn’t want a lot of nitrogen. As with any “root crop” you want good loose soil that has excellent drainage and full sun. Garlic doesn’t want to be drowned so don’t overwater them, especially when they are not quite growing yet. The are not good companions with beans or peas. They are excellent planted amongst basil. A nice layer of mulch, especially one that attracts earthworms, is beneficial.
Plant cloves of garlic in the fall, ideally around late september. Garlic loves winter and in Tucson the more cold it has, the more flavor it develops. As said before, they are really not needing of much care. And they are good neighbors with many plants because they are monocots (which include grasses, bulbs, agaves and other plants). What this means is that when a root emerges from the plant, it will always be that size. It doesn’t expand in width. That makes it less competitive physically with other plants. As said before, just stay clear of beans, they let out too much nitrogen. Clean away any weeds that are taking up nutrition from the soil. If flower buds appear, snip them off. This promotes larger bulbs. Consider growing basil around the garlic in really hot weather. This will shade the ground and keep the garlic cooler. If you are dead-heading basil correctly, it will last all through the summer. Just try to space them stratigically far enough away from the garlic bulbs that you are not overwatering your garlic by giving enough water to basil. The more you have prepared the soil, the less of a problem this is, and again, mulch your plants.
When the leaves turn yellow, and dry up, it’s time to pull them up (careful not to bruise the bulbs) using a pitchfork or whatever method works best for you. Garlic will occasionally do weird things depending on the conditions it is presented with. This is especially true if you experiment with different varieties. Keep playing though, and remember to save cloves for planting for the next season.
Wait! You are not done. Garlic will store much longer if cured. Find a metal screen or clean chicken-wire and lay them out to dry (in the shade in Tucson so the sun doesn’t scald roots). Most softneck varieties will store 5-8 months. Hardnecks need to be used much quicker (research each variety and know how much time you have). The good thing is garlic can be used for all sorts of preserves and pickles so if you can’t use them up in time, you can pickle them. You can make a ton of pesto with your garlic and freeze it (since pesto freezes nicely). Garlic also dries very nicely.
Check out the Goddess of Garlic, here, from where I grew up in the Hudson Valley of New York.
Here’s a How-To on drying garlic.