I've planted garlic for many years, usually whatever I could find at the local garden center and sometimes what was on sale in one of my favorite seed catalogs, but I've never planted hardneck garlic.
Then a few years ago a friend gave me a few bulbs of garlic from her garden and I immediately saw that it was different than what I'd been planting. I was well aware of the different types of garlic, softneck, hardneck and elephant garlic, but it was always the softneck varieties that I chose because softneck garlic has a flexible stem that makes it easy to braid into long ropes for better storage.
Hardneck varieties have very hard stems that aren't flexible. This stem goes through the middle of the bulb and once the bulb is cut or broken, the thick hard stem is obvious. Hardneck garlic doesn't store as long as their softer cousins, but their flavors are more intense and can vary depending on the soil where the bulb is grown. Another obvious difference is the color. While softneck garlic bulbs are generally smaller, they are white all the way through. Hardneck varieties have a purple tint on the skin and outer edges of each individual clove.
Elephant garlic is a close cousin to its smaller relatives, but is more closely related to leeks. These bulbs are quite large, as are the cloves that make up the bulbs.
Lately the trend among garlic growers is the part of the plant they call scapes. Hardneck varieties are the best for growing scapes, which is the central stem that emerges from the bulb in early spring. Softneck varieties don't produce scapes. Scapes are the flowering stalks of hardneck garlic bulbs. They are thicker than the leaves and sometimes have a small bulb-like growth on the top. Garlic growers generally cut off the flower stalk anyway to allow the plant to use all of its energy to produce larger bulbs versus sending up flowers and setting seed.
Young, tender garlic scapes tend to curl. As they get older, they will straighten out. Many growers cut off the stalks and toss them on the compost heap, but recently there has been a surge in using the scapes in cooking.
Garlic scapes should be cut when they are young and tender. Some growers snap them off like asparagus, but this can be hard on the bulb, so it is advised to gently cut them off the plant. Once cut and washed, scapes can be chopped to use fresh in salads or sauteed like onions or shallots to use in just about any dish that would call for onions or garlic.
Their flavor is more mild than garlic, and I don't know if they are really that good or if they are a draw because their season is very short, just a few weeks in the spring, but they are pretty tasty.
Growing garlic is not difficult. We like to plant ours in the fall and harvest in mid-summer, but many people prefer to plant in early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, for a fall harvest. Loosen the soil about 12 inches deep where the garlic is to be planted and work compost into the soil, about three to four inches.
Break the bulbs into cloves just before planting and place each clove about four inches deep and about six to eight inches apart in a sunny part of the garden. Place the cloves, pointed side up, in the row and cover the entire row with organic mulch, such as grass clippings or shredded leaves.