It's so easy to grow your own garlic that the hardest part may be remembering to plant it when you're putting the rest of your garden to bed.
Spring is the time to plant most -- but not all -- vegetables. Take garlic, for instance. It's one of the easiest vegetables to grow, yet it isn't a common sight in most Twin Cities gardens. That's probably because of its odd preference for being planted right after the first frost in the fall.
Garlic isn't like other vegetables. In addition to being planted in the fall, it's grown from a bulb, not a seed. In fact, garlic is never planted from seed because it rarely sets any seeds.
The garlic you buy in the grocery store is actually a collection of small bulbs, which we call cloves. If you wanted to, you could buy some garlic at the grocery store and plant the cloves (pointy side up) and by next July you'd have a crop of garlic. But Minnesotan gardeners can choose from a much wider range of garlic, most of which comes from California or China.
According to Carl Rosen, a garlic expert at the University of Minnesota, there are two basic types of garlic: softneck and hardneck.
Softneck garlic, the kind you'd find in a supermarket, tends to have a greater number of smaller cloves. Hardneck garlic has fewer, larger cloves. Some gardeners prefer softneck garlic because its stem lends itself to braiding, but hardneck garlic grows a little better in Minnesota.
If you plant cloves of garlic from a bulb you've purchased at a grocery or farmer's market, you won't know exactly what kind of garlic you'll be getting. So it's a better idea to buy garlic cloves from a garden center. If you're interested in braiding garlic, Rosen recommends the softneck varieties Silver White and Inchelium Red. The best hardneck varieties include Music, Siberian and Chesnok Red.
It might be hard to wait, but garlic really is best when planted after the first frost in the fall.
Plant cloves 6 to 8 inches apart, pointy side up. Cover each clove with 2 or 3 inches of soil. Garlic likes soil that has been amended with a bit of compost, so add about an inch of compost atop the soil. There's no need to fertilize in the fall, but you can boost production if you fertilize in the spring, right around the time you're planting your other vegetables. Garlic is usually harvested in early to mid-July, when about half of the leaves at the base of the plant have turned brown. (For in-depth information on growing garlic, go to www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/M1259.html.)
Although unusual as vegetables go, garlic has a lot going for it. It adds a unique flavor, can help lower cholesterol and can be used as a blood thinner. A native of Central Asia, garlic was introduced to America in the 1700s. It didn't become popular, however, until the early 1900s. And it's still not as popular a garden plant as it could be. Plant it this fall and you may be surprised to find out how much you like growing your own.
Jeff Gillman is an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota. He has written two books, "The Truth About Garden Remedies" and "The Truth About Organic Gardening" (Timber Press, $12.95).