It’s amazing but not surprising how people can succeed when they actually follow advice from an expert.

Last year our garlic crop failed. We harvested a few small bulbs, an inch or less in diameter. It was enough to satisfy our needs for most of the winter, but since we always use the largest bulbs to plant the next year’s crop, we found we didn’t have any large enough for planting.

So I contacted Kip Penney, bulb expert at Fedco Seeds in Clinton, to see where I’d gone wrong. The answer was simple: I’d planted the bulbs too closely together. I’d spaced our bulbs four inches apart, but Penney said they should be at least six inches apart and preferably eight to give the roots room to grow. If you are planting in rows, put the garlic bulbs a foot apart.

Anyway, I needed to buy seed garlic and had no idea what kind to buy. I remembered from when we first planted garlic 15 years ago that it had been a German hardneck purchased from a local seed store, and then I saved enough each year to plant the next year’s crop. As an experiment, we spent $41 last fall (It would be $47 this year, although the mail-order deadline has passed) on a sampler from Fedco, including three bulbs each of softneck, porcelain, rocambole and marbled purple stripe – although the specific varieties weren’t listed when we placed the order.

What we received were Metechi marbled purple stripe, Uncle Fred’s German white porcelain, Russian Red rocambole and Inchelium Red softneck. These were large, attractive bulbs, and I knew we would plant more garlic than ever. We also knew our friends and relatives would be happy to receive gifts of garlic.

I planted them in October, as instructed, pointy heads up, deep enough to be covered by two inches of soil, eight inches apart rather than the minimum six, and mulched them with ground-up oak leaves.

The garlic sprouted reliably in the spring, and I, following Penney’s instructions, fertilized them (with Pro Gro organic fertilizer from Vermont) and weeded them, cut off the scapes when they showed up in June, and harvested the bulbs in late July when the bottom leaves of the garlic plants started to turn brown.

The harvest was excellent. Even the least productive of the varieties produced more garlic than the bulbs I’d grown previously – mostly because I actually was following instructions.

Uncle Fred’s German white porcelain garlic may not have been abundant but the cloves sure were big. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

The least productive of the four varieties was Uncle Fred’s German white. The bulbs were sizable but there weren’t many of them. That could be because porcelain-style garlic has only four or five cloves per bulb, the smallest number of the four varieties, and I got three bulbs of each type – so fewer cloves for Uncle Fred’s. In addition, Fedco’s website says Uncle Fred’s wasn’t available this year because of a crop failure, so maybe it was a bad year for that variety all around.

The Metechi – which also wasn’t offered this year, but no reason was given – had the smallest bulbs on average but produced more bulbs and more volume overall than Uncle Fred’s.

The Russian Red was the most productive hardneck, producing lots of large bulbs. It has a slightly red skin and is attractive.

The most productive overall, both in number and bulb size, was the Inchelium Red softneck, and this was surprising. All the articles I have read agree that hardneck garlic does better in Maine because it likes the long cold winters we have, which most softnecks don’t like. But Inchhelium was developed in the town of that name in northern Washington state and grown in Michigan, so I guess it’s used to the cold.

Tom Atwell brought his editor four garlic varieties he had grown to sample and evaluate. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

What about the flavor? For that I turned to my editor, Peggy Grodinsky, a food writer and editor for many years before arriving in Maine, where she edits my stories and those of some other non-food writers in addition to overseeing the paper’s food coverage.

She made tzatziki, a cucumber and yogurt sauce from the Middle East that uses uncooked garlic, mixing up the dip with the various garlics. Then she invited seven guests to test it. (I was traveling for a granddaughter’s wedding and I’m sorry I missed the trial.) She added she also intended to conduct a cooked garlic test, perhaps garlic spaghetti (aglio et olio) but ran out of time.

The favorite, she said, was Uncle Fred’s, “Nice and mild. Most approachable of the four we tasted. Easy to keep eating.”

Her tasters described the Metechi as “Piquant. Spicy/sharp. Sulfuric bite.”

The Russian Red got this writeup: “Strong garlic flavor. Spicy/sharp. More oniony than garlicky. Slight vinegar flavor.”

And the Inchelium was “Mild. Sweet. Slightly spicy aftertaste.” That description fits the consensus of softnecks, which is the garlic most often sold in supermarkets because it can be planted by machine. Penney said most sellers at Maine farmers markets prefer porcelain varieties.

Garlic becomes milder when it’s cooked, and my wife Nancy and I plan to make some of our own comparisons this fall and winter with the garlic we socked away.

So, what am I going to plant this year? All of them, continuing my garlic experiment, to see if the second year gets the same results as this year. But Uncle Fred’s will get the most space, followed by Russian Red.

I also am going to see if I can replicate a late friend’s roasted garlic recipe, a decadent treat in which you slice just the top off an entire bulb, drizzle it with olive oil and bake it for about a half an hour, caramelizing and enhancing the flavor of the garlic cloves. I loved that as an appetizer the few times I’ve had it.

We have enough garlic so it won’t be a tragedy if we fail a few times.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

[email protected]

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