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Growing Garlic With Rol

Rol Hesselbart and his garlic

“I do everything wrong,” Rol Hesselbart said as we looked over his garlic harvest. And, he pointed out, he did everything wrong in Michigan and Virginia before he started doing everything wrong in Heath.

Hesselbart, naturalist, educator and retired national park ranger, is known locally for the size and quality of his garlic bulbs. I am one of the lucky few who scored a few to plant myself this month.  His growing techniques have evolved slightly since he put his first soft neck garlic cloves into the ground in the mid-70s. Soft neck garlic is known for its keeping powers and the pretty way the stalks can be braided to make a nice gift.

“The first time I planted garlic was the only time I bought garlic,” he said. He saved some of the bulbs  and used them as seed garlic, planting that one strain through all his moves, including the move to Heath.  He even grew that garlic and sold it at the Farmers Market one year. That was fun he said, “but being at the market took too much time for the financial return, so now we mostly just gave it to friends.” One of his friends, Lloyd Crawford, the owner and chief chef at Stump Sprouts in Hawley buys a lot of that garlic.

One day Crawford told Hesselbart that he preferred hard neck garlic for its flavor. He gave Hesselbart some of the bulbs he had been using, and that is what he has been growing ever since.

Hesselbart and his wife Lynn Perry have one of the most productive vegetable gardens I’ve ever seen. At only 50 by 50 feet it includes an asparagus patch, kale and Brussels sprouts that are now caged to foil the deer, all the usual vegetables from peas to beets, and, of course, three rows of garlic to produce about 100 new garlic bulbs. “I like growing garlic because you plant it when you are cleaning out the garden in the fall. It has no insect or disease problems and is just very easy to grow,” he said.

After Crawford gave him those first hard neck garlic bulbs, which are not ‘supposed’ to keep well, Hesselbart began choosing the largest cloves to plant, in order to grow the largest bulbs.

Hesselbart plants his biggest garlic cloves in October. While he says he has never noticed any particular difference in his garlic whether he was gardening in the very different climates of Michigan and Virginia, in very different soils, it must be said that the quality of his Heath garden soil is extraordinary.

He uses compost, but for the last couple of years, since the December 2008 ice storm which gave the town enormous amounts of wood chips, he has not only used wood chips as mulch in the garden, he dug in truckloads of chips right into the soil. All the books will tell you this is ‘wrong’. But Hesselbart questions the conventional wisdom that says  it takes more nitrogen to break down nitrogenous materials than they will add, and he has research reports to back him up.

I can tell you that while there is evidence of a few wood chips in his soil no one would ever dream that he had tilled in more than two truckloads.

Neither does he worry about tilling in unfinished compost, which many people consider ‘wrong.’

Garlic planting season is upon us. Hesselbart pushes each clove, pointy side up, into his soft well drained soil. This would be three or four inches for the rest of us who might have to dig a furrow. He spaces the cloves about a handspan apart (6 to 8 inches) and the rows also a handspan apart. Then top with mulch. The cloves will begin to grow this fall, then stop, and begin to grow again in the early spring.

When the garlic scapes emerge and are about a foot tall he pulls them out with a good yank. This is to prevent the energy that should be going into the bulb from going into the seeds at the end of the scape. Hesselbart explained that garlic is a member of the lily family which propagates  by root and seed. He wants all the energy to be directed into the root, the garlic bulb.

He was quite distressed to read a book recently that strongly exhorted garlic growers to wait until the garlic scape had curled and then uncurled before cutting it off or else the garlic bulbs would not keep well in storage.

Hesselbart is energetic in his defense of his technique saying he has never had trouble with storage of hard neck garlic. He not only removes the scapes early, he breaks the harvested bulbs open and leaves the single cloves on the kitchen table where his wife cooks with them all winter.

Garlic should be harvested in July, or when the stalks are half yellowed. I planted garlic for the first time last fall and  left the harvest too late. The result was garlic bulbs that had started to break apart making it difficult to get all the cloves out of the soil and into my basket.

Rol Hesselbart's seed garlic

For those of you who need some seed garlic you have the perfect opportunity to buy excellent garlic at the 12th Annual Garlic and Arts Festival in Orange.  The hours are from 10 to 5 pm, and there is more than garlic at the ‘festival that stinks.’  There’s entertainment, and a special family stage, demonstrations, contests, special children’s activities, and great food. For full information logon to www.garlicandarts.org.  It is especially important to see the new parking and shuttlebus directions.

Between the Rows  October 2, 2010

3 comments to Growing Garlic With Rol

  • They’re veggie garden sounds wonderful! Just trying to imagine “soft, well drained soil”~it’s my goal here, but no rain for two months makes it a little like concrete. I’ve also been reading that mulch is not a nitrogen hog~It seems to take a long time for ‘new ideas’ to take hold in the gardening world. Gail

  • Interesting. I’m growing garlic here in Sweden, they are just delicious.

  • Pat

    Gail – It is thrilling and envy making to visit a garden with such beautiful soil. I’ll just keep working on it – and hoping you are sending some rain up here.
    Sophia – Garlic is delicious in every cuisine.

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