November 2, 2007

What do You Know About Garlic?

Allium sativum, more commonly known as garlic, is an ancient plant.  But, unlike most vegetables, domesticated garlic doesn’t produce fertile seeds, and must be grown from divisions, or single cloves of the underground bulbs.  What that means - and it’s fun to think about - is that every clove is essentially a living piece of that original ancient plant.  Although, most people are familiar with only the supermarket variety, there are other kinds of garlic that are worth seeking out.

Basically, garlic is divided into two categories.  What you find in the grocery store, and the most frequently grown, is called softneck.  This highly productive plant produces long lasting bulbs, with many cloves around a soft center stem.Hardneck garlics are noted for their stiff central stalk, fewer cloves, and their relatively short shelf life.  However, they’re easier to peel and because they have intriguing, complex flavors, hardnecks are popular with chefs and gardeners.  If you want to grow your own garlic, you’ll have to wait until autumn, so the cloves will have time to mature into bulbs for the following summer.  In the meantime, look for hardneck varieties at farm stands and gourmet food stores.  And you can even save some of the cloves for planting next fall in your very own garden!

This autumn, we’ve been busy planting 9 different hardneck varieties, which we saved from last year’s crop.  These varieties each have their own flavor characteristics, from mild to strong, which makes using them in the kitchen adventurous and fun.  They are specifically:  Georgian Crystal, Red Rezan, Russian Red, Japanese, Italian Purple, Silver, White, German Hardy, Polish Hardneck, and Chesnoke Red.

There are a few things to keep in mind when planting garlic:
- Garlic does not like to grow where Brassicas (cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower) grew the year before.  This is an unhappy marriage, reducing garlic yields.
- Be sure to snip off the curled flower spikes as they emerge, which will direct energy back to the garlic bulb, increasing its size.
- Carefully dig up the garlic bulbs after their tops turn brown and fall over.
- To cure the garlic so that it will keep in storage, place it in an area with warm temperatures, high humidity, and good air circulation for 4 to 6 weeks, until roots are completely dry.
- Save your biggest bulbs for planting next autumn – remember, the biggest cloves produce the biggest bulbs.

You can purchase the very same garlic varieties that I grow at:
Seed Savers Exchange, 3094 North Winn Road, Decorah, Iowa 52101 

Ph: (563) 382-5990 Fax: (563) 382-5872

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization of gardeners who save and share heirloom seed. 

Here’s a brief explanation about seed exchanges –

If you’re a gardener and you’re getting tired of what’s available at your local nursery or through garden catalogs, then you might consider becoming a member of a seed exchange.  A seed exchange is basically a society whose members trade seeds with fellow gardeners.  These seeds are most often from choice species and are not readily available to individuals.  The only way to cultivate them is to find another gardener who has seeds to pass along.  Fortunately, there are many devotees who are willing to share their seeds for nearly every plant and type of garden.  For instance, if your passion is rock gardening, you can obtain seeds through a rock garden society.  There are fern societies, carnivorous plant societies, and exchanges dealing with heirloom fruits and vegetables.  Many seed exchanges are geared to very specific climatic conditions, such as desert regions and marshy areas.

Many varieties of seeds exchanged through these groups are extremely rare and could have faced extinction, had it not been for the commitment of gardeners wanting to keep them alive.  So for a nominal fee and perhaps sharing some of your own seeds, you can enrich your garden and may also help to safeguard the genetic diversity of the world’s plant life.   

Erika Hansen, one of my gardeners is smoothing the soil in a bed where she will be planting next year’s crop of garlic.


Erika is displaying the cured garlic saved from last year that she will be planting.   This variety is Georgian Crystal.


Separating the garlic head to plant each clove separately. You can see that long, rigid stalk, which is why this kind of garlic is called hardneck.


Erika is spacing individual cloves on top of the garden bed.


Erika pushes each clove into the soil and covers it over.  Doesn’t the soil look dark and rich?  My gardeners have done a great job amending it with all sorts of organic nutrients.  I think the garlic will be very happy growing here.