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Open any garden publication this time of year and you'll find an article on planting and growing garlic.

If you're inclined to turn the page and wonder why anyone would ever want to grow garlic instead of buying it one bulb at a time, consider this: Homegrown garlic gives you deeper, fresher flavor than anything you can buy in the produce section.

Commercial growers rely on only a few varieties, but home gardeners have access to dozens, from mild to pungent, white to purple, all superior in one way or another to supermarket selections.

If you've never grown garlic or experienced different flavors, you may want to plant all three types and experiment with flavor and growth habits.

Soft-neck varieties, well adapted to our mild winters, store for many months, usually have both large and small cloves in each bulb, and can be used for braiding.

Hard-neck types tend to produce a stiff central stalk that cannot be braided, have fewer but larger cloves than soft-neck, are easy to peeland tend to be quite pungent, often considered superior in taste.

Elephant garlic, botanically a type of leek with a garlicky flavor, stores for several months, has huge cloves that are mild and easy to peel. If left in the ground throughout July, it develops a 4- to 5-foot ornamental flower stalk.

Make a selection

While it's possible to plant garlic from the supermarket, it makes more sense to grow types developed for home gardens. Local nurseries generally carry several selections for sowing but aren't able to offer the wide variety available by mail order.

Of the many descriptions of garlic varieties you can find online, two excellent sites are at WeGrowGarlic.com and GourmetGarlicGardens.com (click on "overview" at top of this page).

You may be amazed at the possibilities.

If long-term storage is a factor, consider the hard-neck porcelain types. These have real garlic pungency under a fairly thick skin that keeps them fresh for months, although some argue that braided, soft-neck types hold up nearly as well.

Plant now — or soon

While the saying "plant on the shortest day, harvest on the longest day" reminds us that garlic must overwinter in the ground, in the midst of a rain storm on Dec. 21 we'll also be reminded that we really should plant sooner. Late October and November are ideal planting times.

If you haven't already worked bagged manure into beds, there's little time now for it to age before planting garlic. Instead, mix in compost. If drainage is slow in winter, use enough compost to build up raised areas to keep bulbs above the standing water from winter rains.

Plant large, unpeeled cloves — use small ones in the kitchen — 4 to 6 inches apart, and cover with about an inch of soil. Plant elephant garlic 8 to 10 inches apart. Wait until tops begin to grow in spring before adding fertilizer, a dose in March and again in April.

Garlic will sprout this fall then lie quietly until spring when growth begins in earnest. Soil must stay moist all the while, never soggy or bulbs will rot.

When leaves turn yellow in May or June, withhold water. Wait to dig bulbs when most leaves have browned or fallen. If tops never fall over, bend them by the end of June.

Brush off soil and set bulbs in a warm spot with good air circulation for a week or so. Then store in a cool, dry location.

Autumn chores

Fallen leaves make excellent additions to the compost pile any time of year. When they're moist from rain, mix them into an existing pile.

When they're completely dry, bag and store them for the weeks and months ahead when you have an excess of moist kitchen scraps in the pile.

The onset of the rainy season is the best time for planting natives. You can catch a good sale through the end of the month at California Flora Nursery in Fulton (see calfloranursery.com).

This is also a good time to taste-test apples if you're thinking of adding a tree to your backyard orchard. Farmers markets and grocery stores such as Oliver's Markets are featuring a wide selection of apple varieties — new introductions, long-time favorites and heirlooms.

(Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.)