Halloween is just around the corner, so you should definitely be on the lookout for any number of frightful half-human creatures. Chief among the terrifying hordes are vampires, though they seem to have faded into the background as zombies take center stage. But just to be safe, you should definitely have some garlic nearby.
Garlic is one of those plants that has worked its way into so many different cuisines around the world. Sometimes it takes center seasoning stage in Italian dishes, and sometimes it acts as backup to other seasonings. Its versatility makes it a staple in many different dishes.
At the grocery store, garlic is available whole in the produce section, chopped in water or oil in a jar or dried and ground in the spice aisle. If this is the only experience you have had with garlic, I’m sad to say that you’ve only tried the least interesting and least tasty garlic around. Grocery store garlic, like the other produce items you find there, are grown for storage and shippability — not for flavor.
There’s a whole world of garlic out there with a wide range of varied and complex flavors. If you want to try them, you’ll either have to find a local farmer growing garlic or grow it yourself. Lucky for you, garlic is one of the easiest things to grow.
I often reference Halloween and vampires when I talk about garlic, not just because garlic repels vampires, but because it is a good reminder of when to plant garlic in the garden. Mid-to-late October is the prime time for adding the alluring allium to the garden. You can also remember that you plant garlic during the same period that you plant spring flowering bulbs — they are bulbs, after all.
While many people are accustomed to the single variety available in grocery stores, there are several different types of garlic that all have different flavor characteristics. These types can be classed in two categories; hardneck garlic has a hardened central stem when it dries, and softneck garlics remain soft and pliable. Softneck varieties are the ones that lend themselves to being braided into those hanging garlic braids. Softneck varieties are also longer-storing than hardneck varieties.
A quick primer on types of garlic
• Purple Stripe — bulbs have purple on the outside. Some of the tastier garlics that become deliciously sweet when roasted.
• Porcelain — popular gourmet variety. Usually has a more robust and spicy flavor. Bulbs are typically large and have large cloves.
• Rocambole — Rich, complex flavors popular with chefs. Their scapes (edible blooms) form a double loop. They do not do well where winters are warm.
• Asiatic/Turban — Do not store for long periods. Mature earlier in the season (late spring as opposed to summer) than other types. Flavors are usually strong and hot.
n Creole — Attractive red color. Performs well where winters are warmer. The flavor is similar to (though milder than) Asiatic/Turban Varieties.
• Artichoke — the grocery store garlic (California White) is an artichoke garlic, though other varieties have more complex flavors. Bulbs tend to have multiple layers of cloves.
• Silverskin — often the last in the season to mature, these are the longest-storing garlics.
It can be tough to find garlic in local garden centers to plant. Those that do carry garlic, often carry it at the wrong time of year for planting when it is shipped in on the spring garden displays. If you don’t have friends to share their garlic with you, or a local farmer to buy some from, you are going to have to go the mail order (or online order) route.
There are several companies that do a good job selling a variety of different garlics. Check out your favorite garden catalog to see if they carry garlic. If not, check out Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com), Baker Creek Heirlooms (www.rareseeds.com), and Burpee Seeds (www.burpee.com).
Once you have your garlic bulbs, split them up into cloves, being sure that you have a piece of the basal plate (the part that holds them all together) on the clove. This one clove will turn into a whole clove over the growing season.
Plant the cloves tip up about 4 to 6 inches apart and about 2 inches deep in loose, organic soil. Mulch after planting with about one inch of straw or shredded newspaper.
Garlic is a relatively heavy feeder, so it would benefit from a good balanced fertilizer treatment after it is established. I usually plant mine where I’ve had beans in the summer so it can benefit from the nitrogen added to the soil from the beans.
After that, just be patient. Garlic requires little maintenance, and only requires water if the weather turns very dry. Harvest it once the leaves start to die in mid-summer (around July, unless it is an early-maturing variety). Be sure to save some to plant next year and store the rest for use in the kitchen.