GARLIC LOVERS (and we are legion): If you have ever tried growing your own garlic and have come up with the shriveled little specimens we produced two years running, you may be as surprised as I was to learn that garlic should be planted in October and harvested the following August. The reason our garlic was so shrimpy was that we planted it in the spring, as many garden writers tell you to do, and expected it to produce wonders by late summer.

If you want prime garlic, you have to leave it in the ground 10 months, like any other member of the lily family, says Cal Slewing, whose California garlic farm, S&H Organic Acres, produces some of the most gorgeous garlic I've seen anywhere. The same bulbs are good for both eating and planting, though S&H, in its mail orders, sends prime bulbs for eating and smaller bulbs for planting.

"Ideally, garlic should be planted between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15, but in warmer areas -- south of the Mason-Dixon line -- it can be planted as late as Oct. 30," says Slewing. The idea is to give the garlic about a month to start developing a root system before the first hard frost. If an early frost comes along, you can cover it at night with a plastic container, an old sheet or shower curtain. Garlic is pretty hardy.

You can plant the garlic you buy from your local greengrocer, but take the trouble to seek a truly first-class bulb -- plump, firm and free of brown spots. Avoid garlic that looks shriveled or mushy. And you might explore varieties other than everyday white garlic. What you are likely to find, whether locally or by mail, are three varieties: elephant, Italian and red (sold under several names -- such as German Red, Dago Red, Early Red, Greek Blue, Blue Italian and Spanish Rojo); these premium garlics are likely to sell for about $6 a pound.

Elephant garlic has the same flavor as ordinary garlic, but is milder and incredibly easy to peel. One bulb, its half-dozen cloves each the size of a large grape, will weigh anywhere from eight ounces to a pound. Italian garlic is an improved version of the white garlic usually available in local markets. Red garlic, which is more flavorful (that is, more pungent) than the others, takes longer to grow and doesn't keep as well once it's picked, but you can preserve it by pure'eing or dehydrating it, or placing the peeled cloves in oil. It is probably the one to order if you like a pronounced garlic taste.

The Planting

As for growing garlic in this area, the chief problem is that garlic likes a loose, friable soil, and local soil tends to be heavy clay. Garlic requires plenty of sun and water, but needs good drainage. To improve drainage, work a little compost, sand or sawdust into the soil (ideally to a depth of a foot). If you aren't working with compost, also work in some weed-free manure or a balanced 12-12-12 fertilizer, because garlic is a heavy feeder. If your soil is acid, you might also add dolomite or lime, because garlic thrives in a neutral soil.

The smaller garlic plants are good as borders in your vegetable garden, where they discourage not only vampires but also the more common garden pests. The elephant garlic needs a space of its own, as in its prime it grows three feet tall -- about as high as sweet corn.

Divide each garlic bulb into separate cloves, leaving the parchment skin on (but don't worry if it comes off accidentally). Plant each clove with the root (blunt) end down and the pointed end up, placing elephant garlic cloves about eight inches apart in rows 16 inches apart (further, if you plan to rototill). Smaller varieties need be planted only four inches apart. Water the garlic as soon as it is planted, and keep it fairly moist. In about six weeks the garlic leaves will emerge from the ground. Cultivate the soil around it to keep it loose, and weed carefully -- the larger the weeds, the smaller the garlic. In the spring, elephant and red garlic will send up a center stalk with a beautiful flower that resembles a rose bud. Snip that off immediately; it's a seed pod, and if you don't remove it, all of the plant's energy will go into it and not the garlic. Fertilize the plant with manure, compost, chemical fertilizer or (best of all) bone meal. Stop giving the plants water starting July 1.

The Harvest

Come August, voila ! Dig up the garlic as soon as it starts to turn yellow, even if it still has a greenish stripe. If there are heavy rains in July, dig it up right away or it will rot. Most people make the mistake of leaving the garlic in the ground too long into the summer.

Place the harvested garlic, roots intact, in a warm, dry area away from the sun (ignore advice to dry it in the sun, says Slewing) -- in a dry garage, for example, or under a big oak tree. In about two weeks, cut the roots and top off; the roots, if you leave them on, will pick up moisture and start growing again. Place the garlic in a warm, dry area where air circulates freely and let it cure for about a week to a month -- raw uncured garlic has a bitter taste.

Certain elephant garlic cloves won't divide, and you'll get a half-pound onion-like round of garlic the size of a baseball. You can eat this, or plant it again; it will divide the second year. On the other hand, some elephant garlic will have peanut-sized attachments. You can peel and eat these, or plant them and leave them to grow for two years.

The Storing

Do not store garlic in the refrigerator. Store it in a cool, dry area away from the sun, where air can circulate freely around it. A garage or basement is fine if it is not damp; even a broom closet will do. You can lay garlic on raised wire racks, or hang it in an onion or garlic bag, or any mesh bag -- even in a pair of panty hose.

To preserve the more perishable German red variety, slice and pure'e it in a food processor. To each half pint of pure'e, add about a teaspoon of lemon juice to keep it from turning dark (although darkness won't alter the flavor). Garlic pure'e must be refrigerated.

To dehydrate garlic, slice it about 1/8-inch thick and dry it in a dehydrator or a gas oven until it snaps when bent. Keep the garlic chips tightly sealed in a jar in your cupboard (do not refrigerate), and they will keep for years. Use the chips in soups, stews or sauces, or keep them in your pocket and munch on them.

Life Without Garlic?

If garlic were suddenly to disappear from the planet, there would be bedlam in the cookbook industry. A world without garlic would be a world without Caesar salad, bouillabaisse, stuffed mushrooms, escargots bourguignonnes, moules marinie re, bagna cauda, not to mention countless renditions of chicken, lamb, scampi and pasta, and the more obvious garlic soup, garlic bread, aioli, rouille and skordalia.

If you are deeply into garlic, you probably ought to have at least one of these books on your kitchen bookshelf: "The Book of Garlic" by Lloyd J. Harris (Panjandrum Press), which is light on recipes and heavy on humor and folk medicine about garlic; and "The Garlic Lovers' Cookbook" from Gilroy, the Garlic Capital of the World (a Celestial Arts paperback). "The Garlic Lovers' Cookbook" is full of mouthwatering recipes, and the success ratio on those we've tried (two of which are reprinted below) is very high.

EDNA RAMIREZ' MEXICAN GARLIC SOUP (4 to 6 servings)

This spicy Mexican-style soup is so good (particularly with the cheese cubes melted in it) that we would not want to control the fieriness of it. But it is indeed hot, so for children or others who might prefer it tamer, we recommend keeping half of it chili-free in a separate soup pan. A great soup for a simple Sunday evening meal, this will take the chill off no matter how cold the winter. 2 tablespoons oil 4 cloves fresh garlic, minced 1 cup finely chopped onion 3 medium-sized tomatoes, peeled and chopped 1/2 cup chopped green chilies 1 tablespoon flour 2 quarts hot chicken broth 2 1/2 cups peeled raw potatoes, cut into small cubes 2 teaspoons salt (or to taste) 1 teaspoon black pepper 2 medium-sized carrots, peeled and thinly sliced 1 medium-sized zucchini, thinly sliced 2 cups monterey jack cheese, cut into small cubes Heat oil in 3-quart saucepan and add garlic, onions, tomatoes and green chilies; saute' for 3 minutes. Stir in flour and cook for 2 more minutes. Continue stirring as you pour in the hot broth. Add potatoes, salt and pepper. Cover pan and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Add carrots and zucchini and cook for 15 minutes longer, or until potatoes are tender. Just before serving add the cubed cheese. From "The Garlic Lovers' Cookbook"

MARY MOZZONE'S GARLIC BREAD

If what you want is pure unadorned garlic bread, try toasting the bread, scraping a clove of raw garlic on it (the toast will act as a grater), and then buttering the bread and popping it back in the oven. For a subtler approach, this version is very nice, a little like white pizza. You may want to add more garlic, salt or herbs. 1 cup butter, softened 1 cup grated parmesan cheese 1/2 cup mayonnaise 5 cloves (or more) fresh garlic, minced or pressed 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley 1/2 teaspoon oregano 1 large loaf french bread, cut lengthwise

Mix all ingredients in bowl and spread on bread. Wrap in foil and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Unwrap and brown slightly under the broiler. (Garlic bread may be prepared, wrapped in foil and popped in the freezer for use later. Allow slightly more time in the oven to thaw the frozen bread.) From "The Garlic Lovers' Cookbook"

CAL SLEWING'S SUGGESTIONS FOR GARLIC PURE'E

When cooking roasts, "paint" the entire roast with the pure'e, using a pastry brush or your hands. We also do this to one side of steaks or chops being grilled, but only for the last two or three minutes.

Use the pure'e to substitute for fresh garlic in any sauce.

Combine elephant garlic pure'e and parsley butter for an excellent meatless and tomato-less spaghetti or noodle sauce.

"Paint" french bread with pure'e and butter and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Place under a broiler until golden brown.

Partially slice through a whole or half loaf of french bread. Spread the slices and "paint" pure'e and butter inside. Wrap the loaf in foil and place in the oven until hot.

Mix pure'e with chopped chives and cottage cheese for a diet snack.

Blend the pure'e with your favorite cheese spread or cream cheese for a garlic cheese spread.

Mix pure'e and herbs for scrambled eggs.

Elephant, Italian and German Red garlic can be ordered by mail from S&H Organic Acres, P.O. Box 27, Fenders Ferry Road, Montgomery Creek, Ca. 96065. Prices vary slightly, but are about $3 for eight ounces. Add $1 per order for shipping and handling. Mastercharge and Visa accepted; give your account number, your card's expiration date, and specify if you want the garlic for eating or planting.