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Growing Garlic – Hardneck or Softneck?

I have grown garlic for years and consider it the easiest vegetable crop to grow. I have always been taught that, given our northern zone 5 climate, we could only grow hardneck garlic. Turns out that this is a myth.

Both the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Filaree Farms (keepers of the largest privately held collection of garlic in North America) agree that both hardneck and softneck can be grown in colder climates.

Growing garlic - hardneck or softneck

Growing garlic – hardneck

Hardneck Garlic

Hardneck garlic varieties (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) tend to form bulbs with fewer but larger cloves. They form a flower scape (ie flower stock) in mid summer. When the bulbs are harvested, you will see the tough flower stem running down the middle of the bulb, as illustrated in the above image. These varieties are reported to be more cold hardy than softneck garlic.

Softneck Garlic

Softneck garlic varieties (Allium sativum var. sativum) do not produce a flower scape. When they are dry, the center stem becomes very soft and can be used to braid bulbs together. Most of the garlic in grocery stores is a softneck variety. Most sources say that softneck varieties produce more cloves per bulb but this is not strictly correct since the number of cloves depends very much on the growing condition. In the warmer south they do form more cloves than the harneck, but in colder climates the number of cloves for both varieties is about the same.  Softnecks also have a longer storage life. The variety named Pioneer is reported to be hardy to zone 3.

Growing Garlic – Hardneck or Softneck?

Given the above descriptions it would seem quite easy to differentiate hardneck from softneck but that may not be true. The University of Minnesota reports that “Climate can have a significant impact on garlic flower stalk formation as well as garlic taste. For example, a variety may be considered a softneck in one location, but in other locations it may produce a flower stalk”, making it a hardneck.

Given the fact that softneck garlic grown in the north forms fewer larger cloves, stores longer, and does not flower so you don’t have to remove the flower, it would seem to be the better choice. Odd that most northern home gardeners around here grow hardneck garlic!! Is there a reason for this, or is it just the result of believing in the myth?

Please let me know if there is a reason why softnecks are not grown more in the north.

References:

1) Photo Source: Jeremy Keith

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Robert Pavlis
Editor of GardenMyths.com
I live in southern Ontario, Canada, zone 5 and have been gardening a long time. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

I hope you find Garden Myths an educational site that helps you understand your garden better.

6 Responses to 'Growing Garlic – Hardneck or Softneck?'

  1. Ray Eckhart says:

    And … The hardnecks are also easier for me to use without waste, since the smaller cloves on the insides of the softneck bulb, can be tiresome to peel and use.

  2. Ray Eckhart says:

    I find the flavor of the Hardneck variety I grow is stronger … more garlicky (?), and I also want the longer storage characteristics of the softnecks, plus the fun of braiding, so I grow both.

    I think the hardneck I grow was originally Music, but it was sourced from a local CSA one year, and they thought so, but weren’t positive, since they had been growing it locally for 10+ years.

    (SC Pennsylvania, USA … Zone 6a/b)

  3. As far as I know, the reason most people grow hardneck is BECAUSE they can remove the flowers. The flowers are sold in farmers markets and grocery stores as “Scapes”. That way you get two uses from the same plant.

    • As I mentioned in the post, that may be a common practice. Here in zone 5 we grow hardscape because everybody believes, incorrectly, that we can’t grow softscape.

      • Yes, I did see that. Sorry, maybe I was over explaining. All I meant was that when something seems strange just follow the money. I don’t find it odd that farmers would want a second product from their plants. The average consumer doesn’t know enough about garlic to know that the heads with 12 tiny cloves are avoidable and therefore don’t demand it from their suppliers. It doesn’t cost them any extra time to plant, fertilizer or watering so it just makes sense to grow the plant that provides two harvests. *shrug*

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