Garlic is one of my favorite homegrown crops to talk about, because it can be grown virtually anywhere! When it comes to growing garlic, no one is left out. Planted in the fall and overwintered in the ground, it is an easygoing crop that requires patience but little care. Come late spring to summer, garlic is unearthed to enjoy for many months to come. However, not all garlic is equally suited for every climate.
Come discover the key differences between softneck garlic and hardneck garlic, along with some of the most popular varieties of each type. Certain garlic varieties thrive in places with harsh winter weather, while others are happiest in milder locations. Also, hardneck and softneck garlic have other unique characteristics, such as varying bulb types, flavor, and shelf life. Knowing the difference between softneck and hardneck garlic will enable you to choose cultivars that will be the most successful in your garden – and meet all your culinary desires!
For more detailed information on how to grow garlic, please visit our Garlic Growing Guide. It includes information on where to source garlic seed, tips from planting all the way through harvest, and how to cure, store, and preserve garlic as well.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SOFTNECK & HARDNECK GARLIC
Climate & Growing Zones
Hardneck garlic varieties grow best in Northern regions with harsh winters. You know… sleet, ice, feet of snow even. When properly planted, hardneck garlic can grow down to USDA hardiness zone ZERO, sustaining winter lows of -30’F. Brrr! While you’re all bundled up inside, your fall-planted garlic is as happy as a clam in the soil – as long as it is under a deep layer of mulch. In fact, hardneck garlic needs a prolonged exposure to cold weather in order to grow well – also known as vernalization.
If hardneck garlic seed fails to receive proper vernalization after planting (spending at least 40 days at or below 40°F) only a single small bulb will develop, rather than a robust head of many cloves. As a result, hardneck garlic is a poor choice for locations with mild, warm winters.
In contrast to hardneck, softneck garlic varieties thrive in areas with mild winters – making it a great choice for higher USDA hardiness zones, such as 8 through 12. That said, most softneck garlic can be grown in lower zones too (down to about 3) and easily survive freezing temperatures, particularly when provided a good mulch layer for protection. Softneck does fabulously for us here on the temperate Central Coast of California (zone 9b/10a). Yet despite our lack of hard frosts, we have gotten away with growing a little hardneck over the years too!
Some moderate transitional regions can grow both hardneck and softneck garlic well, as long as they get at least a month or two of adequately cold temperatures for the hardneck types. In addition to these common traits, be sure to read the descriptions of the garlic you are scouting out for variety-specific information. Attempting to grow garlic that isn’t ideal for your climate can lead to small, underdeveloped heads.
Bulb & Clove Characteristics
In general, softneck garlic varieties typically produce a larger overall bulb than hardneck types, and have more numerous individually-wrapped cloves inside. Yet while hardneck garlic bulbs may contain fewer individual cloves, each clove is usually larger in size. The large hardneck cloves are wrapped with a thin skin that is often easier to peel than softneck cloves, making them less tedious to work with in the kitchen.
Shelf Life (Storage Potential)
Another notable difference between softneck and hardneck garlic is shelf life. Due to their dense heads and tightly wrapped cloves, softneck garlic has superior storage abilities over hardneck garlic.
Even when properly cured, the cloves of more tender hardneck varieties may begin to soften, sprout, rot, or otherwise spoil within 3 to 5 months post-harvest (though they could hold up a tad longer). Meaning, you should plan to use it up somehow within that time frame. For example, enjoy it fresh, re-plant cloves as seed to grow even more garlic, or otherwise preserve it.
Softneck on the other hand has the potential to stay fresh and firm for twice as long, up to 9 months (or more) when cured and stored properly. Because of this, softneck garlic is what you’ll most likely find in the grocery store. Despite the long shelf life, we always preserve some as homegrown garlic powder too! Again, please see our Garlic Grow Guide for more details on how to cure, store or preserve garlic after harvest.
Need a trick to remember which type of garlic stores longer? It is the exact opposite of what their names seem to imply. “Hard” makes me think durable, while “soft” makes me think of something going bad more quickly. Yet it is just the other way around!
Garlic scapes are edible flowering stems that are only produced by hardneck garlic varieties. The highly-prized scapes emerge from the center of the hardneck’s leafy green tops as the garlic nears time to harvest. Most gardeners harvest garlic scapes once they form one nice loop or curl, and then snip them off at the base area nestled in the leaves. If you allow the scapes to hang around too long, they will take energy away from the developing garlic bulbs as they continue to grow.
It is a shame that softneck garlic doesn’t grow scapes, because they’re supremely delicious! Garlic scapes are reminiscent of long, tender, garlic-flavored green beans, and are a fantastic addition to pesto, sautéed, or a number of other ways!
Now, this difference between softneck and hardneck garlic is more subtle and can vary dramatically depending on the particular variety. However, hardneck garlic varieties are rumored to have a more rich, strong, and spicy garlic flavor. Softneck types are slightly milder, but still have plenty of garlic kick to them! The pungent flavor and shorter shelf life make hardneck garlic prime candidates for dehydrating into garlic powder.
Hardneck or softneck, the stellar taste of fresh homegrown garlic knocks the socks off of grocery store garlic by far!
Other Garlic Classifications
In addition to their hardneck or softneck designation, there are additional sub-groups of garlic types. For example, hardneck garlic is further characterized as a Creole, Purple-Striped, Asiatic, or the most prevalent, Porcelain and Romachole types. Softneck garlic varieties are most often ‘artichoke-type’.
Porcelain garlic varieties are among the easiest and most consistent to grow, are very cold hardy, but also grow well in warmer southern climates. Porcelain types also contain the highest level of Allicin, the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compound in garlic that makes it so good for you!
Rocambole garlics don’t do as well in warm southern regions, and are generally considered more challenging to grow than Porcelain – requiring very good fertility and cold winters. They also have shorter storage potential. However, Rocambole garlic is often regarded as the best-tasting garlic, with a rich and complex flavor profile and easy-peeling cloves.
POPULAR GARLIC VARIETIES
Now that we know more about the difference between hardneck and softneck garlic, let’s highlight a handful of the most popular varieties of each. However, keep in mind that there are dozens and dozens of different unique garlic cultivars out there. The list below is by no means exhaustive!
Hardneck Garlic Varieties
- Music – a popular Porcelain garlic with large purple paper-covered cloves. Very cold-hardy, and does very well in Canada, the Pacific Northwest, and other northern regions, but also adaptable to other climates. Known for excellent production, extra-large scapes, and long shelf life potential. The flavor packs some heat, but nothing overwhelming.
- German White – another Porcelain garlic variety, also sometimes called Northern White or German Extra-Hardy. The bulbs usually produce 4 to 6 extra large easy-peeling cloves with a balanced garlic flavor. Known for its success and hardiness in exceptionally cold climates.
- German Red – a Rocambole variety, known for its strong and spicy classic garlic flavor. Reliable producer of large purple-tinted bulbs with easy-to-peel cloves. Grows particularly well in colder regions of the country.
- Spanish Roja– a Rocambole garlic. An old Northwest heirloom that is very popular with home gardeners and chefs alike. It carries a classic rich garlic flavor within its average 8-12 cloves per bulb. Beautiful purple streaked white skins. Not known to have an exceptionally long shelf life.
- Red Russian – Like Spanish Roja, a red to purple-striped, impressively cold-hardy Rocambole type garlic. This garlic has extra pungent flavor, great storage quality, and averages 6-7 cloves per bulb. Very popular in the Pacific Northwest, as it can survive in locations with damp soils during winter (where others may be prone to rot).
- Chesnok Red– Tolerates cold well, but adaptable to many climates. Offers 8-12 large, slender, bright red to pink cloves that are easy to peel. Prized for its mild, sweet garlic flavor and creamy texture when roasted. Stores for an average of 6 months after curing.
Softneck Garlic Varieties
- California White (early and late) – a common “grocery store garlic”, and argulagly the most predominantly grown garlic variety in the country. Easy to grow, perfect for beginners, home gardens, or market gardens. Braids nicely and produces 10-16 cloves per head. Classic moderate garlic flavor. Well-adapted to warm climates but can grow well in colder regions as well. The Early variety is ready to harvest in spring while the Late variety matures in summer.
- Lorz Italian – An artichoke type with extra hot and spicy garlic flavor, popular with chefs and excellent for roasting. Prolific yields of robust, large, easy-to-peel cloves. Tolerates summer heat well, ideal for southern climates.
- Inchelium Red – an artichoke-type softneck variety, and national taste test winner. This is our go-to and long-time favorite softneck variety. It is cold-hardy enough to grow well in cold Northern climates as well. Known for its wonderful but mild garlic flavor, easy growing nature, and superior storage life.
- Nootka Rose – A popular Northwest heirloom garlic, originating from the San Juan Islands. Known for its strong and zesty flavor. Produces 10-20 cloves in medium-sized bulbs. Well adapted to many climates, late-maturing.
- Silver White – a popular, classic, easy-to-grow softneck variety, often found in grocery stores. Produces large cloves with exceptional storage qualities, up to 12 months. Grows well in cold climates, hot regions, and even humid coastal areas.
- Silver Rose – A mild flavored and productive softneck garlic, popular in the western and southern US along with Italy and France. One of the longest storing varieties, akin to silver white. Produces 10 to 12 rose-colored cloves per head, and makes beautiful garlic braids.
What about Elephant Garlic?
Despite its misleading name, Elephant garlic isn’t a true garlic at all! It is more closely related to onions and shallots, and doesn’t have the same long-term storage qualities as real garlic. However, elephant garlic is cultivated much like garlic and requires a long cool growing season, considered a hardy biennial (lives 2 years) in zones 3 through 9. Elephant garlic yields a few gigantic paper-covered cloves (up to one pound each!) and has a more mild garlic-like flavor, palatable to be consumed raw even.
And that sums up the differences between hardneck and softneck garlic.
I hope you enjoyed learning more about garlic, and discovered some new-to-you varieties that sound well-suited for you to grow at home! Like I said, there are dozens of other options as well. Did I miss any of your favorite garlic varieties? Let me know in the comments below. As always, please feel free to ask questions too. Thank you for tuning in!