In New York, when five cents was worth a lot more than it is today, they used to say that “a nickel will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat.”
As most people know, garlic imparts legendary health benefits — from reduction of high blood pressure to cancer prevention to strengthening of the immune system. I have a friend who, each day during the winter, consumes one garlic clove steeped in honey and says he never catches a cold. Yet garlic is just as famous for its repellent odor, so that if you chew on garlic before entering a subway or any other crowded place, it is quite possible that people will instantly scatter in a way that was common, once upon a time, when a king or queen passed through a throng of loyal subjects.
The assumed wisdom on garlic has always been that it is more nutritious raw than cooked. The problem here is that raw garlic is more pungent than the cooked version and so garlic breath would naturally accompany the healthier, raw form of garlic consumption. However, a recent study published in Food Chemisty found that when tossed into the skillet with other stir fry fare, at least, and in certain other quickly cooked up configurations, too, the health-promoting antioxidant quality of garlic is preserved.
Fall is the best time of year to plant garlic. The reason for this is that, in the manner of deciduous tree fruits and nuts, a dose of winter chill is necessary in order properly ripen a garlic crop. If you plant garlic in the spring, you should only do so after placing the bulbs in your refrigerator 40 days prior to planting to mimic the effect of cold weather.
If you plant garlic in the spring without prior vernalization — the scientific term for cold exposure — the individual cloves will not grow much and you will not be able to plant them as seed garlic later on. The term “seed garlic,” like seed potatoes, does not refer to seeds but rather to garlic bulbs that, separated into their cloves, are appropriate for planting. Thus, the point of fall planting is not only to get fat bulbs for culinary purposes, but to harvest more seed garlic that may, in turn, be planted out for next year’s crop.
However, unlike ‘Bing’ cherry trees which, planted in Los Angeles, will never produce fruit, garlic cloves planted without vernalization in the spring will still give you something to eat. Soft shoots will appear soon after planting and these can be cut to the ground and used as a substitute for chives, which they strongly resemble. The leaves that take their place will be somewhat more fibrous, but this still immature, so-called green garlic may be harvested all the same. Green garlic refers to young plants which look much like scallions, whose taste is more mild than that of mature garlic. Green garlic bulbs may be eaten raw or softened through roasting and turned into a spread. Thus, every step of the way, regardless of when garlic is placed in the ground or harvested, you will find a wide variety of culinary uses for this protean plant.
The domesticated garlic (Allium sativum) that we eat cannot be found growing wild anywhere. Although its undomesticated antecedents are native to Central Asia, garlic has been highly prized since the dawn of civilization and all ancient cultures of the Old World, including Egyptian, Hebrew, Chinese, Persian, Greek and Roman, record and extol its consumption. Over the course of several millennia, gardeners and cooks must have sampled thousands of strains of garlic, choosing to replant and perpetuate those that were most useful in the kitchen.
There is a riddle here. The garlic that we eat, if it is planted, produces few, if any, seeds. Seeds that are produced typically fail to germinate and those that do germinate will take many years to form bulbs. If this is the case, you wonder how our varieties, which bear little resemblance to any wild garlic types, were developed. Perhaps the answer is to be found in the fat bulbs of our garlic as opposed to the tiny bulbs of wild garlic and the lack of viable seeds in our garlic as opposed to the more successful seeds of wild types.
The ultimate resolution of this riddle, I suppose, lies in an important principle that domesticated garlic illustrates as opposed to its wild cousins. There is a fixed amount of energy — it’s the carbohydrate made during photosynthesis — available to any plant and it is up to the plant to distribute this energy among its constituent parts. It is precisely because our garlic varieties devote their energy to making bulbs instead of seeds that they became popular and were propagated down through the ages. Somewhere along the line, here and there, plants with fatter bulbs and fewer seeds must have appeared and these are the ones that were painstakingly cultivated, hybridized, and selected along the way.
It’s the same principle that underlies so-called dead heading, which is the removal of faded or dead flowers so that they do not form seeds. Where plants are concerned, seed formation is, by far, the most energy intensive physiological process. That’s why roses and pansies are removed as soon as they began to fade. If this is not done, seeds forming in the ovaries of these flowers will demand the lion’s share of energy available in the plants to which these flowers are attached, with little energy remaining for further flower production. Depending on the variety, after an initial bloom period, you may not see much flower development if dead heading is not performed.
Garlic should be planted in a sunny exposure, full sun if possible. The ideal soil will be heavily amended with compost to a depth of at least six inches. This process has two goals: to make sure soil drains perfectly and to increase soil fertility. Still, you will want to incorporate into your soil a high nitrogen, organic fertilizer with a label such as Dr. Earth, Down to Earth, or MaxSea. Separate bulbs into cloves immediately prior to planting in order to keep cloves hydrated prior to placement. Cloves should be planted only 1 and 1/2 inches deep, pointed end up, with six inches of separation between cloves. (An aside: garlic is a combination of two words, gar = spear, referencing its pointed tip, and lic = leek, a close relative.) Last but not least, cover the bed with four to five inches of straw mulch, available at Red Barn in Tarzana, to keep moisture in and prevent soil erosion and loss of soil minerals as a result of winter rain.
As for harvesting, you will know the time is right when the green tops begin to dry out and flop over at some time during the summer. Remove a sample bulb with a trowel. If it is fat with fully developed cloves, harvest the rest of your crop. Lay the bulbs on the soil surface of the bed in which they grew and let them dry there for one week. Now clean the bulbs, cut off their roots and tops, and allow them to dry out for another three weeks in a dry area with good air circulation. Some garlic growers, following harvest, hang their garlic by its green foliage for the entire four week desiccation period. Your garlic, once dry, and kept unstacked, should store for up to six months or longer in a cool, dry place such as a garage.
You can grow garlic, just as you can grow potatoes, from store bought produce. However, specially grown seed garlic, like seed potatoes, is likely to give you a more desirable crop than that which grows from supermarket fare, although some gardeners swear that, where garlic is concerned, excellent crops will grow from what you find at Ralph’s. There are an abundance of online vendors from which many seed garlic varieties are available. Reneesgarden.com, which supplied some of the above growing and harvesting recommendations, is one such vendor.
Tip of the Week: The Perennial Plant Association has awarded its 2018 perennial plant of the year to Allium ‘Millenium,’ an ornamental onion. Alliums include garlic, onion, chives, shallots, scallions, and leeks. In the manner of these bulbous plants, Allium ‘Millenium’ (one ‘n’ only) may be propagated by division of its bulbs, so that your collection of it will increase from year to year. Rose-purple, 2 inch diameter spherical inflorescences bloom in the summer, attract butterflies and, with their 18″ stems, may be cut for vase arrangements. As for growing conditions, exposure and soil preparation should replicate that described above for garlic. Allium ‘Millenium’ may be ordered from highcountrygardens.com.