If you want to know when to plant garlic, just monitor the fall foliage: When most of the leaves are on the ground, it’s time to plant. In fact, rake those leaves, grind them up with a chipper or your mower, and you can use them for mulch on your newly planted beds.

As I've said in previous columns, about five years ago I was given some enormous heads of garlic by a friend who’d produced them by saving the largest cloves from each year's crop as seed garlic. We've been doing the same since then, trying to build up our own crop of large-cloved seed garlic. Why go for larger garlic? Researchers have noted that larger-sized planting cloves had more vigorous plants with greater leaf area and larger bulb diameter, and it’s just as easy to plant a larger clove. During these years of building up seed stock it’s sometimes seemed as if we were forever doomed to eat only small, reject garlic. Not that this is a hardship; small home-grown garlic heads still have all the attributes of their larger siblings — fresh, juicy cloves with pungent, spicy flavor and no chemicals involved in the growing or storing. But it's very satisfying to finally hold an enormous clove in your hand to admire before chopping it and feel that the years of waiting were worth it. Bigger cloves mean less peeling and easier chopping, too.

Now that we have finally built up enough extra-large garlic to make the seed and eating heads almost indistinguishable, we are becoming the Johnny Appleseed of the allium world, sending friends and relatives home with seed garlic so they can start growing their own. Given how simple garlic is to grow, it's remarkable how many gardeners, once they pull the summer's dead stalks and vines from their beds, just turn their backs on the garden and walk away until spring. Remember, you only need to clean and dig up one bed for garlic and can let the rest of the garden go until later and you'll still have a garlic harvest next summer. An added advantage to growing garlic is that it takes up very little space in the garden, space that's available for a second crop once you harvest your garlic in early August.

To grow garlic, you should go for the best seed available. Most supermarket garlic is the softneck variety, better suited to warmer climates and easier to harvest commercially than the hardnecked varieties that are hardiest in colder climates like ours. It may be bleached or treated, so it's not good for seed. Gourmet seed garlic for planting is becoming expensive, ranging around $25 a pound, so if you can, get a friend to part with a few heads and build up your own stock. How much seed garlic will you need? If you use an average of two cloves per day, you need to raise over 700 cloves per year, or around 70 to 90 garlic bulbs. Depending upon the variety and the size, you should order 5 to 11 pounds of garlic to plant. But you can have a tiny plot and still enjoy a taste of the good, fresh stuff. Garlic grows best if the planting stock is exposed to temperatures between 43 and 50 degrees for about two weeks before planting. Stock that has not experienced enough cold before planting will produce bulbs with more but smaller cloves and with an increased tendency to double cloves.

The biggest garlic grows in loose soil enriched with plenty of organic matter. If you can, amend your soil with well-rotted manure and/or sawdust. For the biggest garlic, space rows eight inches apart and the cloves six inches apart within each row. This gives the garlic lots of room to grow. Plant the cloves with the pointy side up and flat side down, and cover with about two inches of soil. Use a dibbler to make holes or dig furrows in the bed and lay the garlic cloves in them.

After you have finished planting your bed, cover it with a three- to four-inch layer of straw, hay or chopped leaves. This mulch helps moderate weather extremes, keeps weeds down, and conserves moisture.

If you have seed garlic cloves left over, you can make Spanish garlic soup, a meal in itself and a good choice for the first chilly days of autumn.

S O P A   D E   A J O

14 cup olive oil
10 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
4 slices stale baguette, cut into cubes
1 Tbsp. Spanish smoked paprika
12 cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
4 eggs, lightly beaten
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley, for garnish
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat; add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Add bread and paprika; cook, stirring occasionally until bread is slightly toasted, about 5 minutes. Add wine and cook until absorbed by the bread, about 2 minutes. Add stock and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. To poach eggs, break each into a cup and carefully add to soup one at a time. Scoop out poached eggs one at a time into soup bowls and slowly ladle soup over them. Garnish with parsley.