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Hardnecks and Softnecks

Hardnecks and Softnecks- what does that really mean?

There’s a lot of confusion out there concerning the different words thrown out there to describe garlic, so I am going to try and help clear it up a bit. Botanically speaking, “hardneck” garlic is garlic that has bolted- meaning, it has sent up a central stalk, a flowering structure. If you’ve grown ornamental alliums, you’ll know and recognize that the big umbel (the umbrella-shaped flower) is the equivalent to the scape and bulbils that a “hardneck” makes.

                Conversely, a “softneck” garlic is a variety that has been selected because it does not send up that hard central stalk. It’s like a perpetually immature garlic. Botanically, it’s behaving like its cousins, a first-year onion or leek, which in its adolescent stage just makes succulent tasty stalks or a big fat bulb. For commercial production (California, China, etc.) they like softnecks because they don’t have the added effort of harvesting the scapes and finding a way to sell or use all that byproduct. When the garlic matures, the soft neck, the leaves, just flop over and die, like an onion does before harvest.

                In earlier decades, when the genetic sequencing hadn’t been done yet, people relied on these two features (phenotypes) to describe all garlic, though as I will explain shortly, the genetics are a bit more complicated than that.

                Basically, if I take a hardneck garlic and plant it further south than its heritage suggests, there’s a chance it’ll grow “softneck.” More likely, it may fail to form a large bulb, if it doesn't experience a long enough cold period (called vernalization or vernalizing). Southern growers can trick northern garlic by chucking it in the fridge for several weeks before planting.

The fact is that the garlic genome contains both possibilities in it. The plant is relying on environmental signals to tell it what to do. When we select garlic through the years, we are only selecting for a tendency- a preference. If you take a softneck and grow it further north than its origins, many of them will become hardnecks. No, it’s not nuclear radiation making mutant garlic bulbs that rebel against their genetic programming! On the contrary, they have an algorithm in their genes that goes something like this: (If winter temperatures reach X or lower, use self-propagation strategy A and B. If winter temperatures are X or higher, use self-propagation strategy A only). X is a variable that changes for each variety, and thus we can say that yes, a garlic tends to be hardneck or softneck. Some garlics have a very high threshold to go softneck, or a low threshold to go hardneck. For your information- strategy A is to simply turn from a single clove to a multiclove bulb each year, while strategy B is to send up the flowering stalk and give a go at making a flowering structure and bulbils.

                Now, back to the genetics. Studies done in the 90’s and later gave us a much sharper picture of the truth behind garlic diversity. There are (11) major families to garlic- Porcelain, Rocambole, Purple Stripe, Glazed Purple Stripe, Marbled Purple Stripe, Asiatics, Turbans, Creoles, Silverskins, Artichokes, and Midde Easterns. For practical purposes, here’s what to keep in mind. First, Purple Stripes are the original garlic. Even "modern" types, being asexually propagated from the beginning, are hardly changed from the first domesticated garlic. They are the bearers of the genetic material all others were selected from. It should be mentioned that a lazy habit of many growers is to lump any unknown garlic into the Purple Stripe family- a habit to be avoided!

Somewhere along the line, when garlic flowers were easier to produce seed from, mankind and/or nature made the other 10 families, which, when propagated by clone, retain the same heritage as the original F1 cross made via true seed.

                The genetic studies show that there’s not a single gene that governs hardneckism and softneckism (I just made those terms up…stop me!) It’s a complex interplay of genes that tell a garlic plant what to do. The Artichoke and Silverskin families basically prefer to go softneck. The Creole family is typically hardneck, yet genetically is akin to Silverskins. The Asiatics and Turbans are often called “weakly bolting”- which means they are more variable than most, depending on conditions. The rest fall fairly strongly into the Hardneck camp but the further south you go, the more likely you will see variation. For the record- changing altitude and/or cultural practices like mulch, rowcover, greenhouses, etc, can trick garlic into thinking it’s somewhere else.

The truth is that in a temperate climate, you should be able to grow almost all types of garlic out there, and you may just have to learn the idiosyncrasies of each family. For example, I've learned to plant Asiatics and Turbans later than other garlics, in order to prevent them from having too much warm weather to prematurely sprout before winter.

Softnecks are the longer-storing types, so a self-sufficient, diverse farm should learn how to raise softnecks for this reason alone- even if they're a bit more of a challenge in the North. They go limp and flop to the ground when they're reaching final maturation, so if you have a weed disaster, your garlic is very hard to find as it lays on the ground.

Conversely, hardnecks have the most subtle variations in flavor, while not keeping as long, so they are the "shooting stars" of garlic- brief, fleeting, but beautiful! If all you've had is softneck, you have to try some hardneck types! Their harvest window is less time sensitive, too, so they're more forgiving of benign neglect.

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