Garlic Obsession: How to Grow and Harvest Garlic

April/May 2004
http://www.motherearthliving.com/Plant-Profile/Garlic-Obsession.aspx



David Cavagnaro

• Try our recipe for Roasted Garlic 

Our obsession as gardeners and knowledge seekers continually draws us to totally immerse ourselves in a plant genus. This time, it’s a culinary favorite we can’t live without: garlic (Allium sativum). We found ourselves so enthralled with the history, lore and growing information of this alluring, time-tested herb that we began growing different species and cultivars. We hope you’ll find the information from our garlic expedition a satisfying, inspiring adjunct to gardening with garlic.

Variety, the Spice of Life

In pursuit of information about garlic, we found many informative websites and books (please see our bookshelf for some). We purchased a variety of different garlics from Bob Anderson of Gourmet Garlic Gardens, asking him for a range of mild to hot, both soft-neck and hard-neck types. Our plans were to grow them in two different regions — Susan in her home garden in Brookeville, Maryland, and Tina Marie in the Kitchen Garden at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas.

We began our in-depth study of our newly acquired alliums with enthusiasm, thrilled by their exotic names, such as ‘Shantung Purple Turban’, ‘Burgundy Creole’, ‘Spanish Roja’ and ‘Siberian Marbled’, which conjured up cuisines from around the globe.  First, we examined the vast differences in appearance and color of the bulbs, from creamy white to yellow tan, pink, rose and purple striped. Cloves per head ranged from five to 15.

We decided to do a tasting as described by Chester Aaron in his book Garlic is Life (Ten Speed Press, 1996). So we prepared 10 plates, one for each variety of garlic. On each plate we had a roasted clove of that particular variety, bread that we rubbed bruschetta-style with a raw piece of that variety, and a raw clove to taste. We arranged them in order of the mildest to the most pungent, according to the grower’s description. We made a form to record details of each type of garlic, starting with appearance, aroma and taste of the cloves roasted, rubbed on bread and raw.

Shades, Sizes and Flavors, Oh My!

The purple-veined ‘Persian Star’ had 12 medium-sized cloves with a sweet, mild smell. The roasted clove had a slightly grainy texture in the mouth with a mildly sweet, starchy taste. The bruschetta was the mildest we tasted, actually rather delicate, and the raw clove had no burn, with a sweet light flavor of garlic and a raw vegetable crunch. This is a garlic for the meek — a very mild-mannered allium indeed.

On the other end of the spectrum, we found eight tan cloves with purple blotches in a bulb of ‘Vekak’. The aroma was robust with a strong garlic odor. The roasted clove tasted earthy, bitter and root like, reminiscent of a turnip with some heat. The bruschetta had a good, hot, tangy flavor. ‘Vekak’ was the tenth garlic we tasted, and it was really hot! This garlic was wasabi horseradish kind of hot, tonsil-burning, with lingering heat. It made Tina’s eyes water, and Susan broke a sweat across the bridge of her nose. Truly, the tastes in our garlic array ranged from mild to wild.

These garlics (plus a few more) have been planted and are growing in our gardens, so we can share our sensory experiences in the future. Although we have both grown garlic for about two decades — Tina Marie in her Zone 6, southern climate of Arkansas, and Susan in the mid-Atlantic region in her Maryland Zone 7 garden — we are eager to learn all we can about A. sativum, 2004 Herb of the Year. Confessed garlic devotees, we have some similar and slightly different approaches to how and why we grow garlic. In Susan’s garden, she amends the soil in her 6-by-50-foot raised bed with compost and aged manure, and fervently attempts to grow enough garlic to eat it every day throughout the year. Tina Marie grows garlic in a sandstone-based soil in raised beds amended with ground mineral and other organic matter. She enjoys garlic’s ornamental nature in the garden.

All in the Family

There are many members of the genus Allium, all members of the Liliaceae, or lily family, but all true garlics are classified as A. sativum. These are divided into two subspecies: soft-neck garlics (sativum) and hard-neck garlics (ophioscorodon). Between these two subspecies are five varieties of garlic. Artichoke and silverskin are both soft-necks, and the artichoke garlic is what we see sold most often in the grocery store. Porcelain, purple stripe and rocambole are hard-neck varieties, which are believed to have been the first garlics. Numbers vary according to sources, but there are believed to be about 600 sub-varieties of garlic. Thanks to advice from our friend Pat Reppert (often called the “Goddess of Garlic,” Pat started the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival in Saugerties, New York, and self-published a book called Mad For Garlic), now we are growing A. longicuspus, a wild ancestral strain of garlic. Its origin is south-central Asia, which is purported to be the birthplace of all of the world’s garlic.

Cultivating the Stinking Rose

Buy bulbs for planting from a garlic grower, seed supplier or at the local farmer’s market, choosing well-formed large cloves; the bulb should be firm with no dark spots or mold on the papery skin.

Garlic is easy to grow outdoors in most climates. In cooler regions, plant it about six to eight weeks before the ground freezes. Garlic wants full sun and soil that is well drained and loamy to prevent rotting. Susan has very dense heavy soil with a lot of clay in her East Coast garden. She has been working the soil for years and continues to add amendments such as greensand, soft rock phosphate and occasionally lime. Every year she works in humus in the form of compost and/or aged manure. Garlic is planted in her vegetable garden, which she roto-tills each season, rotating the crops and mulching  with wheat straw.

The soil at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas, is scraped forested mountaintop. The mountain is made of sandstone, which is poor in minerals. The Kitchen Garden is contained between a rock wall, cement sidewalk and asphalt road. The humus content and tilth have been amended to the original sandy creek bed soil over the years with additions of compost, aged hardwood bark, charcoal and decomposed wheat straw. Greensand, soft rock phosphate, crushed oyster shell, crushed granite, lava rock and Sul-Po-Mag (made of sulfur, potassium and magnesium) have been added to improve the mineral content. The beds are raised and worked by hand rather than machinery.  Water quickly drains from the raised bed, reducing the chance of fungal disease in the bulbs. The roots grow down into the moist ground level. Water is retained at ground level under the raised bed because of the soil mulch above.

Just before planting, carefully separate the bulbs into cloves by severing the bulb wrapper just above the cloves around the stem. Peel the wrapper away; then separate the cloves, being careful not to damage the root plate at the base. As Ron Engeland stresses in his informative book Growing Great Garlic (Fillaree Productions, 1991), this is a delicate part of the process because wherever the root plate is broken or damaged, roots cannot form. Plant the individual cloves about 112 to 2 inches deep and 6 to 8 inches apart with the pointed end up and the root end down.

It is best to mulch right away to help prevent soil erosion and keep the weeds down; growth and yield will be much improved if the garlic is kept free of weeds. We usually use a thin layer of wheat straw after we first plant the garlic cloves in the fall and add a little more in the spring once the garlic is up and going strong. Garlic takes about nine months to mature and should be kept well weeded and watered regularly if there is no rain.

However, do not over-water or fertilize during the last month in the ground (usually June, July or August, depending on the climate). When the garlic leaves begin to turn yellow and wither, keep an eye out. It’s time to harvest when about half of them are still green and standing upright.

Green Grows the Garlic

The practice of pulling and eating green garlic is well known in places that grow large crops of garlic, such as the West Coast of the United States and parts of Europe, but it is not commonly known throughout the nation. Pull green garlic in the spring when the green tops are 8 to 12 inches high and the garlic has not yet begun to swell at the base and form a bulb. This delicacy is not readily available unless you grow your own or live in a garlic-growing region. We have seen green garlic in specialty stores and farmer’s markets over the past few years because people are catching onto this tasty treat. Mildly pungent but full of garlic flavor, these tender green garlics, or scapes of hard-neck garlic, can be steamed lightly and eaten like asparagus, sautéed briefly in olive oil or chopped for use in mayonnaise, aioli or as a garnish.

When hard-neck garlic forms a spathe (the flower stalk), it is cut to redirect the energy of the plant from bloom and bulbil (the small aerial bulb that forms on the hard stem) formation back into the growth of the bulb. Cut the stalk back to the leaves. The spathes are tender and delicious. If the stalk is not cut and the plant is allowed to bloom, and the blossom, in turn, is left until a bulbil forms, cut and eat the bulbils as well — the sooner the better.

If garlic is not harvested in the first growing season and is left in the earth, each clove in the bulb will sprout in the fall. Due to the crowded condition, these sprouted cloves will produce small bulbs with many small cloves the following year. The sprouted cloves can be dug and eaten like green onions or separated and planted.

Dig It, Then Give It a Rest

If possible, choose a few days of dry weather to harvest garlic. Push back the straw mulch to dig the bulbs — we both prefer a fork for this job — and shake them free of excess dirt. Don’t pull them, or the dried foliage will pull away from the bulb. As you dig the garlic, lay the bulbs on the mulch as you continue up the row. After all the garlic is dug, pile it into a wheelbarrow or wagon and move into a shady spot where you can sort through the garlic and remove as much of the earth as possible from the bulbs and the roots.

Hang the garlic in bunches of five or six bulbs in a shed or drying room with good air circulation. Or spread the garlic on screens, big flat baskets or boards in a shady place with good air movement. This way, they are moved under cover easily if rain threatens or the dew is heavy at night. It takes a good two weeks, perhaps up to four if the weather is humid or damp, to cure the garlic. The outside skins should be moisture-free before storing. The roots and tops can be cut off, and the bulbs stored in mesh onion bags or in a box in a cool, dark place. Or the tops can be left on, and the soft-neck garlic can be braided.

The Many Faces of Garlic

For years, we’ve used garlic to deter pests. In the past, Susan has planted garlic around her roses to discourage black spot and mildew, as well as insects, as suggested by Louise Riotte in Roses Love Garlic (Storey, 1998). Although we generally don’t think of garlic as a container plant, we have grown it successfully in whiskey barrels. We’ve made a spray from garlic and hot peppers and applied it to plants with infestations of aphids and white flies. Susan uses this spray on her plants before moving them back into the greenhouse after spending the summer outdoors; it makes all the critters vanish.

Garlic is scattered throughout the Heritage Herb Gardens at the Ozark Folk Center. Not all members of the lily family are safe to eat, but there is no mistaking the smell of garlic, so we are safe if we use our noses when harvesting garlic from the landscape. In the May flower garden, hard-neck garlic plants, often called serpent garlic, send up long stems that intertwine around one another like charmed serpents or the necks of graceful swans. In the evenly spaced vegetable garden, they remind us of a line of Egyptian dancers pointing this way and that. 

Occasionally we are remiss in removing the bulbils from our hard-neck garlic until it is time to harvest the entire plant. While the bulbs are smaller than those topped at the proper time, however, the bulbils still make new garlic plants. Tina Marie scatters these in the lawn around her garden so that every time she mows, the insect-repellent qualities of garlic are released.

Garlic Resources

• Bobba-Mike’s Garlic Farm
P.O. Box 261
Orrville, OH 44667
(330) 855-1141
www.garlicfarm.com

• Filaree Farm
182 Conconully Hwy.
Okanogan, WA 98840
(509) 422-6940
www.filareefarm.com

• Gourmet Garlic Gardens
12300 FM 1176
Bangs, TX 76823
(866) 348-3049
www.gourmetgarlicgardens.com

• Johnny’s Selected Seeds
955 Benton Ave.
Winslow, ME 04901
(800) 879-2258
www.johnnyseeds.com

• Nichols Garden Nursery
1190 Salem Rd. NE
Albany, OR 97321
(800) 422-3985
www.nicholsgardennursery.com

• Seed Savers Exchange
3076 N. Winn Rd.
Decorah, IA 52101
(563) 382-5990
www.seedsavers.org


Garden pals Susan Belsinger and Tina Marie Wilcox now have 17 varieties of garlic growing in their gardens to celebrate the 2004 Herb of the Year. True aficionadas of the stinking rose, they will be giving lectures together and separately throughout the country this year (see The Herb Companion Calendar for specific events).