Difference Between Hardneck & Softneck Garlic
(1) How to tell the difference
For the most part, being able to tell the difference between hardneck and softneck garlic is quite easy. Hardneck garlic varieties send up a flowering stock called the scape (similar to when an onion plant bolts). This scape starts at the base of the garlic bulb and goes up through the neck. This stock causes the neck of the bulb to have a "hard neck" and hence the name. With softneck garlic, this scape structure is lacking and therefore the garlic keeps it's "soft neck" at harvest time.
In very cold climates like the Northern United States, some softneck plants can bolt or form bulbils in the stem. Generally, only some of the plants will do this and the scapes are poorly formed.
In very warm climates like the Southern United States, some hardneck varieties may not form scapes at all. This is because hardnecks require cold exposure (vernalization) in order to properly develop. Lack of cold exposure can suppress scape formation and even prevent bulbs from forming.
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(2) Braiding, Bunching & Storage
Due to the "softer neck", softneck garlic can be braided after harvest whereas hardneck garlic can be put into bundles or trimmed. Some growers also braid hardneck plants, however, it is very difficult and requires the crushing of the stock with a rolling pin before braiding.
Softneck garlic tends to also store much longer than hardneck garlic which makes it an ideal choice for large braids that can be stored over winter. This is because bulb skins on softnecks are much tighter around the neck which prevents moisture on the inside of the bulbs from leaving and prevents diseases on the outside from getting in.
Generally, softneck varieties can be stored from 10 to 12 months and hardneck varieties can be stored from 4 to 8 months.
(3) Growing Climate
Hardneck varieties are more suited to cold climates, whereas softneck varieties tend to thrive in warmer environments (although with a bit of care, both can be grown successfully in most places). Hardnecks have also been around for much longer than softnecks as they more closely resemble the wild garlics that humans first harvested thousands of years ago.
Within the softneck and hardneck groupings, there are specific garlic families. These families all have different characteristics, however, all share the same habit of either forming a scape structure or not. To complicate things a little bit, some families within the two garlic groupings will only form a scape under certain environmental conditions (such as cold winters). Most garlic growers call these weakly bolting, although they are technically considered to be hardnecks.
Hardnecks are generally considered to have a superior, more complex flavor than softneck varieties. Also, hardnecks of the same variety can have subtle differences in flavour depending on where they are grown and the growing conditions of the season.
The strength and character of hardnecks vary, from mild purple stripes, to sweet porcelains and to spicy rocamboles. Softnecks are generally simple and not overly hot or spicy.
About the Author: John Côté owns and operates a garlic farm with his family who has been farming the same land for over 140 years. As an agronomist and experienced farmer, he helps other growers learn how to grow garlic successfully. He has written many articles and is the author of The Master Guide to Growing Big Garlic.