Fall is the best time to plant this kitchen essential. Here's how to plant garlic, plus the best ways to use it.

You might assume that the end of summer means the end of the growing season. In reality, the easiest and best thing to plant in the fall is garlic. Not only is it winter tolerant, but you can plant it and forget it until spring. “And you should—the best garlic is ‘grown’ over the winter,” says Mike McGrath, host of the nationally syndicated public radio show “You Bet Your Garden.”

When to Plant Garlic

Rules of thumb are great in the gardening world—plant peas on St. Patrick’s Day, corn should be “knee high by the Fourth of July”—and garlic is no exception. McGrath swears by the advice he once received: “The oldest Italian gentleman I ever met said to plant your garlic the day the kids go back to school.”

What to Plant

Though we can often save seeds from fruits such as tomatoes to plant next year, you won’t have much luck growing with grocery store garlic. Even if you’ve seen store-bought garlic send out a green shoot (called the germ), more often than not, garlic is treated to inhibit this sprouting—and extend the shelf life in the store. You won’t know this by looking at it, and you won’t have a guarantee of it being free from disease; you also won’t know whether it’s even suitable for your growing climate.

Opt instead for seed garlic, which you can buy from mail-order catalogs or online. Or better yet, pick up a head from the farmers’ market. “You’ll know that this garlic was locally grown, which means it should grow very well in your (nearby) garden,” says McGrath. Select heads with large cloves, “which will result in larger bulbs for you,” he adds.

You’ll come across two “varieties” (really, subspecies) of garlic: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck has a hard center shoot that will grow into an edible green scape—it looks similar to a chive with a small bulb at the tip, and you can use it raw as you would chives or cooked as you would garlic. Around that center stem grows one layer of large, rather uniform garlic cloves. About an inch of this harder “neck” is generally left intact when you buy it.

Softneck, on the other hand, are those heads without the slender neck; they’re the ones where you’ll find a giant clove smashed up against a teeny sliver of a clove. The heads are usually larger, as well, as they have multiple layers of cloves inside.

Hardneck is hardier in colder climates; softneck will grow better in milder winters. Because of their uniform size and less of a papery covering, hardneck cloves are easier to peel as well. Softneck tends to store longer with its tighter wrapping, which is why you frequently find it in the grocery store.

Many hardneck varieties can be eaten raw without that punch-in-the-face pungency you find with softneck. “If you want the ‘heirloom’ garlics from Italy and Eastern Europe with the colorful wrappers, amazing flavor, and great backstories,” says McGrath, “stick with the hardneck varieties—unless you live in a climate without winter (then you’re a ‘softie’).” Plant a couple varieties, in the event one doesn’t do so well and to give yourself the chance to taste the diverse flavors garlic has to offer.

How to Plant Garlic

Garlic is super easy to grow. Because it’s a bulb that grows underground, it needs light, loose, well-drained soil with a good amount of compost mixed in, advises McGrath. (Raised beds are perfect, “except in the very coldest of climes,” he notes.) Choose a sunny location where you haven’t recently planted garlic or onions; a former tomato patch is a good, companionable spot.

Plant individual unpeeled cloves, pointy end up, about 4 inches apart and 2 inches deep if you live in a mild climate and up to 6 if winter is your predominant season. Water well. When the garlic sprouts, and after the ground freezes, add a 2-inch-thick layer of mulch (straw or shredded leaves) around the sprouts.

How and When to Harvest Garlic

If you’ve planted hardneck garlic, trim the scape that emerges from the plant once it begins to curl. Otherwise, it will sap some of the energy from the underground bulb. For the same reason, stay on top of weeding. (Garlic can’t abide competition.) Water regularly in weeks without rain, advises McGrath. “But if you like your garlic spicy, don’t water at all,” he adds.

Once the lower third of the leaves on each plant have dried and turned brown (late June in warm regions, early July in others, but “never past mid-July,” notes McGrath), carefully pull up a bulb by the leaves. It should have plump cloves and a thick, papery skin. If it’s ready, dig up the others. “But if it looks like a big leek, use it to season your dinner and check another bulb in a few days,” suggests McGrath.

How to Store Garlic

Lay out your harvest in a dry, shady, airy location for a week, says McGrath, then wipe off any dirt, remove the dirtiest outer wrappers, and trim the roots. Braid softneck leaves for hanging; trim hardneck leaves to 1 to 2 inches before setting them in a cool, dark area with good air circulation—a wire shelf or basket is perfect. Since hardnecks don’t store well, try this tip from McGrath: “Clean and slice the smaller cloves. Use some for cooking, then dry the rest in a food dehydrator until brittle. Then whiz them up (in a food processor) into the best garlic powder you will ever taste.”

And be sure to save the biggest cloves for replanting! Until then, here are a few recipes to try with your own homegrown garlic.