It is not widely known but I was crowned the Garlic Queen at the Heath Fair this year. It is only right that I was crowned by Rol Hesselbart, who gave me my first garlic cloves to use for planting. Hesselbart has been growing garlic and and saving the best bulbs to use as seed for many years. The bulbs he gave me were easily twice as big as the garlic you usually buy at the supermarket.
It was hardneck garlic, Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon, that won me the queen-ship. This is the species that is best suited to the northeast climate where the winter is cold and spring cool and damp. Within this species there are many varieties that will give you a subtle variety of flavor. My variety is German, but other varieties include German Red, Purple Glazer, Siberian garlic and others. The Filaree Farm website will give you a good idea of how many varieties are available.
The hardneck is the remnant of the scape, the curly stem that will ultimately produce a seedhead, that looks a lot like a chive blossom. Scapes can be harvested when they are young and used just as you would garlic in your cooking. This year I sliced my scapes into half inch pieces and froze them. This just about doubles my harvest. I use a few scape pieces just as I would a diced garlic clove.
Softneck garlic, Allium sativum var. sativum, is the type of garlic that can be braided and it does have a longer shelf life which means it is the type you usually find in supermarkets. I have not grown this type yet, but my Garlic Crown was made with softneck garlic and I will use those cloves as seed this year, and have a softneck and a hardneck harvest next July.
Garlic is very easy to grow. It will grow in almost any soil, but it prefers a fertile soil rich in organic matter. Planting in good soil is how you grow healthy large bulbs that you can save and use for your own seed. They like sun but can tolerate a little bit of shade.
I wait until the end of October to plant. The clove will start sending out roots, and the soil will stay warm enough to sustain that slow root growth even when the air gets cold. I don’t really want it to send out any green growth. Still, if it should send up shoots that will be killed by winter weather, the plant will send out new growth in the spring.
I plant in a wide row and make three furrows about three or four inches deep and about six to eight inches apart. I take my garlic bulb and break it into cloves. Plant each clove, pointy side up and cover with two or three inches of soil. Then mulch well with six or eight inches of leaves and/or straw.
In the spring green shoots will grow up through the mulch. When the weather is warmer many people remove the mulch but I left about half of mine on, as a weed deterrent. Early in June the scapes will begin to appear. It is good to cut the scapes out, whether you use them for cooking or not, because they use up energy that should go into making nice fat garlic bulbs.
In mid to late July the foliage will start to yellow. When a few of the lower leaves yellow, but the higher foliage is still green, it is time to dig up the garlic. And I do mean dig it up. Don’t pull it the way you can onions which are nearly out of the ground when they are ready for harvest. Make sure you allow for the size of the bulbs when you begin using your shovel. I have cut into bulbs when I underestimated where they were underground.
Make sure you do not allow all the foliage to yellow. If the bulb is overripe the skin will split and the cloves will be loose in the soil. You may lose some of the cloves, and they will not store for very long.
I believe this is controversial, but I do give my newly dug bulbs a shower with the hose, washing off the loose dirt. I am careful not to damage the papery skins. Once washed and dried in the sun, I bring them indoors, out of direct sun, to cure, with their roots and stems, for four to eight weeks. Once they are cured, in a space with good air circulation, I cut off the stems and roots. I use my garden pruner for this job.
It is very important to leave the stems and roots on throughout the curing period .
Having said that, of course, I use the not-completely-cured garlic whenever I need it in the kitchen. Actually, you can even dig up a garlic bulb before it is mature in the spring. This is called green or spring garlic and has a lighter flavor. Some cooks love to use it for its more subtle flavor.
Garlic should be stored in a cool dry space. I have a mostly unheated guest room so I box up the cured garlic and keep it there.
It feels good to have a bed or two of garlic neatly planted and mulched in the fall. I feel I’ve already made a good start in the spring when I see that neat bed with little green shoots coming through the mulch.
I haven’t explored the world of garlic very much so far, but I’ve been talking to people who are passionate about the differences in flavor, so I have a new reason to grow some different varieties next year. For the moment I have all I can handle.
Between the Rows October 11, 2014