“Seed” garlic, garlic seed, or garlic bulbs is the common terminology for garlic planting stock, much like “seed” potatoes. Garlic is increased by planting the cloves (garlic seed) found within each head of garlic. These cloves are effectivelycclones of the original head, keeping the characteristics of a garlic strain by division. Planting one clove results in one full garlic head the next year. Think of the clove itself as a food storage unit for the futuregrowth of the garlic.
Large garlic cloves have more “food” from which roots and early top growth benefit. A good comparison would be tulip bulbs; the bulbs of a tulip variety bear flowers of that variety and are propagated by division or tissue culture. Different size grades of tulip bulbs are standard fare, and the
largest planting stock yields the best, largest flowers. Garlic heads and bulbs are informally offered at what each grower/seller might decide is “planting stock” size, but sadly there are wide misconceptions within the buying public about what is “seed grade” garlic. Some very tiny garlic seed with little potential of growing well or even surviving has been pawned off on unsuspecting gardeners. Minimum two inch diameter heads are the standard planting “seed grade”. Accept nothing less, and pay more for larger grade garlic seed if offered.
Ideally, a large diameter garlic head relates to an average of large sized garlic cloves within that garlic head. And, the bigger the cloves planted, the better probability the garlic crop will handle stress and result in pretty decent sized heads at harvest. Hence, buying large heads of garlic for “seed” garlic is the first, best way to safeguard performance and yield. Admittedly, this is an imperfect metric, but experience shows its wisdom. Refer to THE GARLIC BUYER'S CHECKLIST and HOW TO GROW GOOD GARLIC for more on how to better buy and grow good, healthy garlic.
HARDNECK GARLIC: refers to a very stiff stem, growing up to waist high. Hardneck garlic should grow an edible garlic scape, which should be removed for best sizing of the bulb. Hardneck garlic is divided into further general classes.
PORCELAIN: These are hardneck strains/varieties that are known for their huge cloves numbering 3 to7, depending on the variety. Some of the biggest heads (3” to 4” diameter) can be mistaken for Elephant Garlic. Skins are bright white, but can have rose/purple streaks under the outer white layer. Cloves often have light rose/purple streaks as well. The large size of the cloves make them ideal for chopping and roasting. Flavor is hot and spicy, but without bitterness. Scapes are thick and succulent, the best of all kinds. Stalks grow up to waist high, and leaves are very dark green. GERMAN EXTRA HARDY, GEORGIAN FIRE, and GEORGIAN CRYSTAL are examples of Porcelain garlic.
ROCOMBOLE: These are hardneck strains/varieties that are known for their nice skin colors, hardiness, and good keeping. The heads can be quite huge in diameter (3” +), are flattened/broad in shape, and contain 6 to 10 cloves of medium but varying size. There can be large cloves and small cloves within the same head. The very largest cloves can have two centers that have begun dividing again. This is why a planting can show 2 or 3 garlics growing from the same spot; you did not accidentally plant extra in the same hole. This happens about 5% of the time. Skins are streaked with purple and rose, cloves are tan/grey skinned. Medium size cloves are useful for all cooking/roasting. Flavor is earthy, medium spicy, with some sharpness that mellows nicely when cooked. Scapes are tasty, emerging after Porcelain varieties, giving a good succession of yummy edible tops. Stalks grow above knee high, and leaves are medium dark green. RUSSIAN RED and PHILLIPS are examples of Rocombole garlic.
AND OTHERS?: Other hardnecks exist, as shown by the BOGATYR strain/variety. Always admired for its beauty, Bogatyr has flattened heads and colored skins like Rocomoboles but the number and sizeof the cloves are of a Porcelain. The scape, stalk height, and leaf color are of Rocombole, but the flavorbeing of Porcelain. Then, it gets weird: Bogatyr can create what are called “throat sets”, which are clusters of bulbils on the stalk just above the head. And, when over ripe, Bogatyr will split open from the bottom. These are traits of Softneck types! There is a very unscientific label of “Purple Marble Striped” or some version thereof for this form of garlic. These are made up names, and little work has been done to tease apart the genetic origins of various garlic forms. To me Bogatyr represents an in-between form of Hardneck and Softneck, another manifestation from the wild foundation.
Just like Hardneck garlic, there are lots of Softneck variations with many unscientific classifications. In general, Softneck strains/varieties are knee height with floppy stalks that never (rarely) produce a scape. It is the floppy neck that makes Softneck the braiding garlic of choice! Heads are fully white or white under rose/purple streaking and wash, with 7 to 20 cloves arranged in 2 rings. The cloves of the outer ring are about the size of a small Rocombole/Porcelain clove. Only the cloves in this outer ring are planted for “seed” garlic. The cloves of the inner ring are what I would call “shards”; small narrow odd shaped pieces. Diameter of Softneck heads can be large (3”), but rarely as big as Hardneck kinds. Although not producing scapes, Softnecks can produce “throat sets” of bulbils in the stalk just above the head itself. Softneck types are considered not as hardy as Hardnecks. Flavor is mild, warmly spicy, even sweet sometimes. The only garlic recommended for raw use in general consumption, and is very mild in pungency when cooked. For those that like garlic, but not a lot of garlic. Softnecks keep longer than Hardnecks; we've had heads that have kept into July. POLISH and RED INCHELLIUM are examples of Softneck garlic. Harder to grow consistent large sizes in Maine, but mild in flavor and very long keeping.