Love it or loathe it, rarely do I meet someone who is ambivalent towards garlic. I fall into the adoring category although, as I’ve gotten older, my body has had a harder and harder time handling the bulb. Now that doesn’t mean I’m willing to give it up. In fact, last year for the first time, I decided to grow it.
In the process I discovered that I knew barely a smidgeon about garlic and its whole culture. Full bodied, spicy, mild to hot and flavorful, sharp with a kick — the language garlic lovers and growers use to describe their favorites sounds a lot like wine connoisseurs. And that paper white fist you see in the market is just a tease, one of over 600 cultivated sub varieties of garlic grown around the globe. Although I don’t have the experience to go into all the varieties, the important thing to know is that true garlic fall into two sections of the Allium sativum family, the soft necks with flexible stems that can be braided when dried and the hard necks that cannot. Supermarket garlics are soft necks and have lots of tiny cloves, allowing people to tuck just a sliver of garlic into food. The hard necks don’t last as long when stored, and have larger and more flavorful (in my humble opinion) individual cloves.
Each individual clove is the equivalent of a garlic seed and, if broken off and buried in very fertile but well drained soil, well amended with compost, about 1.5-2” deep and then mulched with a bunch of straw or good compost, will grow into its own paper knuckled bulb. There’s a bit of a debate about when to plant garlic, but I’ve discovered that Halloween is the best time to this area. Plant each clove 5 to 6 inches apart — I cheat some of mine a little closer as I tucked them among roses to deter aphids, but they’re a pain to harvest. You should add mulch to keep soil temperatures consistent and the soil evenly moist. The larger the clove planted, the bigger the garlic grown; so when you break garlic apart to plant it, if any cloves are tiny, just cook with them instead of planting.
In the spring, hard necks send up an elegant curlicue of a scape, cut this off to force the plant to send its energy back into the bulb. My husband, who adores garlic, makes wickedly good pesto from them.
Later in the summer, when the lower leaves start to brown or yellow, it’s time to dig the garlic. Avoid the temptation to yank the garlic out of the ground as this’ll destroy the outer skins of the garlic; and don’t delay harvesting as to do so will cause those outer layers to disintegrate leaving no safe way to cure or store the garlic. I dug some of mine late this year, but it wasn’t a waste, as I just threw the naked cloves into the pickles I was making.
You’ll need to cure the rest of your garlic by letting it rest somewhere with good circulation and no direct sunlight. For me that’s my trusty garage, where I should have hung the plants but instead just laid them hanging over the edge of my spare wheelbarrow for 3-6 weeks. I thought I’d have plenty for the year, but my husband, seeing the wealth of garlic available to him, has burned through almost our entire supply, so this fall I’m increasing capacity by threefold. I’ve already nabbed my supply from Marders as they sell out quickly, and I’m trolling the Internet for some of the other less common varieties like Chesnok Red and Persian Star.
Garlic also prefers to be stored in a cool, dark, dry space, so putting them in a mesh net and hanging them in the basement seems to be the best bet, although my basement is a little too warm (My dahlias never overwinter, but shrivel or sprout instead – very frustrating.)
Oh, and if you, too, suffer from garlic heartburn, get one of those little roaster thingies at William Sonoma or TJ Maxx, or just take a bulb and remove the outermost papery layers, slice the top off to reveal the cloves, drizzle with oil, wrap tightly in foil and throw it in the oven at 425 degrees for 45 minutes. Then squeeze the yummy goodness over bread or chicken or pasta or anything else your heart desires.
Paige Patterson was forced to buy 5 of the 60 percent off Knock Out Rosesmat Marders as at that price they’re basically free.