Garlic is Delicious
Garlic is one of the most-time-honored and widely-used seasonings in the world. It’s a staple in home- and restaurant-kitchens on every continent. The name is actually derived from the Old English word ‘garleac’, which translates as ‘spear-shaped leek’.
Garlic lends its flavor to many different recipes and, depending on the variety, has a flavor and aroma that can be sweet, spicy, pungent, or just plain mellow. I’ve heard garlic described as a ‘true culinary joy’, ‘an essential part of any well-stocked pantry’, ‘the secret weapon’, and ‘a seasoning that can quickly bring a dish from bland to bold.’
You can use it chopped, sliced, sautéed, minced, or roasted whole. And you can add it to sauces, soups, side dishes, and main dishes. It’s that versatile!
Garlic is Both Culinary and Medicinal
Garlic has been used, both as a food, or seasoning, and as medicine, since the dawn of recorded history. In fact, garlic has been so important to, and its use so widespread among, so many cultures that, at least as far as I’m concerned, it’s much more than just another seasoning.
Ancient texts from China, Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome discuss both its culinary and the medical uses. It’s mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran. And cloves dating back more than 3000-years were found in the tomb of Egypt’s boy king, Tutankhamun.
Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, advocated for the use of garlic for respiratory problems, abdominal growths, and as a cleansing agent. And the Roman naturalist, Pliney the Elder, in his book, Historia Naturatis, recommended garlic for ailments including gastrointestinal tract disorders, seizures, joint disease, and animal bites.
In early 18th-century France, gravediggers drank crushed garlic in wine, believing it would protect them from the plague. During both World Wars I and II, soldiers were given garlic to prevent gangrene. It was also used as an antiseptic and applied to wounds to prevent infection.
Medical research on the health benefits of garlic, including research conducted by Weill Cornell physician-scientists at New York Presbyterian Hospital, supports the belief that garlic has, among other benefits, cholesterol-lowering potential, blood-pressure-lowering effects, and antioxidant properties. According to University of Maryland Medical Center information, long-term population studies suggest that those who regularly eat garlic are less likely to get cancer of the colon, stomach, or esophagus. One large-scale study; the Iowa Women’s Health Study, which looked at how much garlic, fruit, and vegetables were in the diets of 41,000 middle-aged women, revealed that those who regularly ate garlic, fruits, and vegetables had a 35% lower risk of developing colon cancer.
Garlic is easy to grow. But unlike most vegetables, the best results are achieved when garlic is planted in the fall, after the first frost, much like spring flowering bulbs, such as crocuses and daffodils (Narcissus). In the North Country, that’s generally from late-September through mid-October, depending on location. As a general rule, if the ground is soft enough to dig, you can plant garlic.
Timing isn’t critical, but it does matter. The idea is to give the planted cloves enough time to establish roots, but not to sprout, before going dormant for the winter. Selecting a location where the planting will receive full sun should ensure an abundant harvest, in July of the following year.
Don’t be overly concerned if the cloves do start to sprout. The new shoots will freeze, but others will emerge in the spring. However, because the cloves will have used up some of their energy by sprouting in the fall, they may produce a crop of slightly smaller bulbs.
Once the ground is frozen, it’s a good idea to apply a 4-6″ layer of weed-free straw, seed-free grass clippings, or chopped up leaves, as mulch. This is to keep the cold in the ground, which will help to prevent heaving, should we encounter winter warm-ups. Mulching with hay isn’t recommended, because hay can be full of seeds.
Remove most of the mulch in the spring, but leave a thin layer behind, to help preserve soil moisture during the growing season and keep weeds from establishing. The remaining mulch will also provide nutrients as it decomposes.
Garlic prefers well drained, friable (crumbly) soils that are rich in organic matter, whereas cloves and bulbs may rot in heavy, wet soils. It does quite well in raised beds with properly amended soils.
It’s best to wait until just before planting to break the bulbs apart, which helps prevent the root nodules from drying out and allows the cloves to set roots more quickly. As a general rule, the largest cloves will grow the largest bulbs.
Without removing the delicate husks, plant individual cloves with their tips up and the flat end down. Cloves planted upside down will result in misshapen bulbs. The garlic will be edible. It’ll just look funny. Plant the cloves 4- to 6-inches apart and 2- to 3-inches deep. For more efficient use of garden space, plant in double or triple-wide rows or in beds.
Leaf development occurs during the shorter, cooler days of spring. During that time, plants should receive about an inch of water per week. Higher temperatures and longer days will initiate bulb development. Once a bulb starts to form, the foliage will stop growing. Better-quality bulbs will form if you water less or stop watering altogether, at that time. Bulbs in drier soil are also easier to dig, when harvesting.
Remove the scapes (flower stalks) before they uncurl. They take energy away from bulb formation and can be used in cooking, salads, or making pesto.
Garlic should be harvested when the tops are dying back. You need to wait until several of the lowest leaves have turned brown. The topmost leaves should still be green. Most often, this is in late July.
Harvesting too soon may shorten the shelf life of the bulbs. But, if you wait until all of the leaves turn brown, the bulbs may over-ripen, in which case the cloves could start to separate from one another in the ground, compromising storage life.
Garlic stores best under fairly cool, relatively dry, well-ventilated conditions. Good circulation will help prevent mold from developing. Healthy garlic stores much longer than diseased or stressed garlic.
Bulbs with exposed cloves and few wrappers (layers of outer skin) should be eaten first, since they’ll store poorly.
Examine your bulbs carefully throughout the winter and use any bulbs that show signs of softening, first.
Procuring Bulbs for Growing
It’s probably best to avoid planting garlic from bulbs purchased in supermarkets and grocery stores. Many of the varieties sold in food stores are not adapted to our growing conditions. And some are treated with sprout inhibitors, which lengthens the storage life of the bulbs.
Purchase garlic for planting from a reputable seed company; preferably one in the northeast or, better still, from a nearby grower. You should only have to purchase garlic once. If you do everything correctly, you can use the largest cloves from the garlic that you’ve grown as seed for the following season, year after year.
So c’mon! Now’s the time to get your soil prepped and ready. Even if you don’t have a green thumb, try growing some garlic. It’s easy. It’s fun. And it’s certainly worth a try!
Photo at top: Bulbs with exposed cloves and few wrappers should be eaten first, since they will store poorly. Photo Credit: Petra Page-Mann / Fruition Seeds via Cornell Small Farms Program.