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It's not too late to plant garlic.

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12/04/2002
It's not too late to plant garlic.

Early December traditionally catches me planting the last vegetable of the season. Actually, I'll enjoy the garlic I plant now next spring and summer, as well as stored in its dried state all through the following winter.

In my experience, garlic can be planted anytime from October through early December. In this respect, it is just like flowering bulbs. Cultivated garlic varieties no longer produce fertile seed, so they are propagated simply by breaking apart the heads into individual cloves, and planting those. Think of the cloves as bulbs. Garlic is a wonderful crop for getting maximal use out of your garden space, as it is planted after other crops are cleared out, and matures early to mid-June, allowing replanting of the bed with just about anything.

Like all members of the onion family, garlic is a "heavy feeder," so work plenty of manure or compost into the ground before planting. Make sure your soil pH is 6 or above; add lime if necessary to raise the pH. I plant my garlic--like just about everything else in my potager, in raised beds about 3 feet wide. I plant 5 rows of garlic down the length of these beds, spacing the cloves about 6-8" apart. This is in a super-fertile bed; if your soil is not too great, allow greater spacing between plants.

Position the cloves about 2" deep; the top of the cloves should be covered with about an inch of soil. In the loose soil of my raised beds, I like to use a French combi-hoe for planting. In Zones 5 and northward, you may mulch with a generous layer of shredded leaves or straw.

Cold weather stimulates the garlic clove to root and sprout. This is why you should never store garlic in the refrigerator; it will quickly develop strong-tasting sprouts.

Choose the largest, fattest cloves for planting. The tiny cloves near the middle of the head will not amount to much other than "green garlic" (see below) until the second year after planting.

You can order garlic from a nursery or seed house, or simply plant garlic you like from the market. The risk with the latter approach is that you may end up planting a variety that is poorly suited to your area. When I lived in Indiana, however, I never had any trouble doing this.

There are two main types of garlic: hard-necked (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) and soft-necked (Allium sativum var. sativum). Hard-necked varieties are closer to the wild form. They send up a flower stalk, or scape, as they mature in early summer. This stalk rarely actually blooms, and produces bulbils instead of seeds. The bulbils may be planted, but will take 2-3 seasons to produce mature heads. Hardneck varieties have good flavor and most produce large bulbs in small number (e.g. 5 to 12 cloves surrounding the flower stalk). Hard-necked garlic is still preferred in France. A popular variety here is the rose-skinned 'Rose de Lautrec'. Hard-necked garlic has a shorter storage life than soft-necked types and is more difficult to braid, due to its hard, inflexible central stalk. A plus, however, is that they are usually easy to peel.

Soft-necked varieties, on the other hand, do not produce a flower stalk. They are easier to store, remaining in good condition for 6 to 8 months. Soft-necked garlic typically has layers of cloves, with those near the center being very small (I admit to usually throwing them out because they're too much of a pain to deal with). Soft-necked garlic is typically more difficult to peel, having a softer, thinner skin.

Many varieties of both types are available from U.S. nurseries. A simple Web search for 'garlic varieties' will turn up lots of sources. Read the descriptions and choose your varieties according to your climate and personal preferences.

Elephant garlic, by the way, is not a garlic at all but a sort of leek. In my opinion it has no culinary value at all, tasting considerably less good than either garlic or leeks.

Harvest your garlic beginning in mid-spring as "green garlic". This is garlic at the succulent stage before it develops side cloves. At this point in its growth, it resembles a scallion, except that its leaves are flat and blue-green instead of round and bright green. Being able to harvest garlic at this stage is for me one of the main reasons for growing it. Green garlic has a delicate, delicious flavor that can star in special recipes (see the cookbooks of Alice Waters and company, as well as those of Deborah Madison for great recipes). It is nothing short of a deicacy.

As the days lengthen in May and June, your garlic will develop cloves. When the leaves on some of your plants start to show signs of turning just a little bit brown, it is time to harvest. If you wait too long, the cloves will have begun to separate, bursting through their papery wrapper. Although your garlic can still be used at this stage, it will not store for any length of time.

Although many sources say just to brush off the soil, I always wash my garlic immediately after harvest. Then I spread it on newspapers or screens in a well-ventilated spot out of direct sun. After about 3 weeks, the husks, which were juicy at harvest, will have dried out and become papery. Turn the bulbs frequently throughout the drying period.

When dry, your garlic is ready for storage. Either braid and hang it, or cut off the tops and store in mesh bags. Either way, keep your garlic at room temperature. Never store in the refrigerator, which causes it to sprout.

As you're probably aware, the health benefits of garlic are legion--both for you and your garden. In people, garlic benefits the circulatory system, and many believe it boosts immunity as well. However, if you go overboard in eating fresh garlic, you will literally begin to reek, as garlic is excreted in perspiration (not to mention your breath). Many organic gardeners use a slurry of garlic and hot pepper to repel pests. Garlic is a superb companion plant, especially for roses, whose color and scent it is reputed to intensify (as well as repelling pests).

But the bottom line is, I'd rather do without salt in the kitchen than deny myself the warm flavor of garlic. Perhaps no other seasoning is as universally loved the world over.

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Products of Interest:
Vallée Noire stoneware garlic jar
Extra large Provençal olive-wood mortar and pestle

Gardener's long-cuff gloves--split cowhide

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