How We Grow the Stinking Rose: Garlic 101
I am told there are people who don’t like garlic. They’ve got to be vampires, right? I’m writing this for non-vampires who like garlic, and like it well enough to grow their own. It’s not the easiest thing to grow but neither is it rocket science, and the payoff is wonderful.
Seed garlic arrives at the Co-op in late September from our growers in Ellensburg and Oroville, certified organic, ready to plant at your earliest convenience, ripe with the promise of bad breath, possible flatulence and really good eating. There are hundreds of varieties available but we only have space to carry about a dozen. That’s still ten or eleven more than you probably need, but it’s good to have options, and no, they’re not all alike.
I like to plant mine in October, a month that seems to be the sweet spot for planting most fall bulbs including tulips, daffodils etc.: the soil has cooled off but isn’t freezing, so the bulbs (cloves in this case) root well but don’t sprout much until late winter. You’ll get away with a later planting if the soil can still be worked, but earlier is better.
Your soil should be well-drained as garlic hates winter wet, and be careful not to overwater even when the plants are actively growing. Raised beds are your best bet if your soil drains poorly. Compost or aged manure are welcome soil amendments, and for good bulb development I plant garlic with fish bone meal – it’s rich in phosphorous, which feeds the bulb but doesn’t promote green growth as nitrogen does. Plant the cloves about 5-6” inches apart, pointy side up, to a depth about 4x the size of the clove (not a bad rule of thumb for most bulbs if you don’t know the recommended planting depth). Don’t plant the whole undivided head! Select the largest individual cloves, leaving the papery skins on. Water them in, but not again until their next feeding in early March.
So, YAY, it’s March! You lived through another winter and now it’s time to pay attention to your garlic, which I’ll presume is now well-sprouted. This time you want a nitrogen-rich fertilizer to promote vigorous top growth and bulk up the whole plant. I like a good granular organic fertilizer for that as it releases its nutrients slowly; an application will feed for four to six weeks. I sprinkle it around the plants, work it into the top inch or two of soil and water it in. I do two applications, one around the March 1 and the second in early to mid-April. By May you should ease up on the water, no more feeding, and completely stop watering by month’s end or whenever you notice the greens starting to fade. By late June, around the solstice, they’ll look nearly dead – right on schedule!
Once the green is down to two or three leaves you can begin harvesting, usually late June through early July. Leave the spent leaves/stalks on so you can easily hang bundles in a cool, dark and well-ventilated place for two weeks plus. This cures the garlic and extends its shelf life for months. Peel off as few of the outer layers as possible to make the heads clean and pretty, keeping in mind that the less you peel off, the longer it will keep.
There are two garlic types: softneck and hardneck. The hardnecks have stout flower stalks that set buds and get weird in May, suddenly curling and looping kind of like a French horn. These are garlic scapes, a delicacy you can sauté, stir fry or grill like asparagus. Garlic shouldn’t be allowed to flower, anyway, so cutting the scapes is a doubly good thing.
Hardnecks produce larger, easier-to-peel cloves but fewer of them, maybe as few as four and almost never as many as ten per head. They tend to be hotter than softnecks but generally don’t keep as well, usually six months or less. Softnecks are most often smaller heads with smaller cloves and most grocery store garlic falls into this category. Their cloves are more numerous and most have a very long storage life – some will keep for a year! Also, these are the ones you use for braiding if you’re feeling crafty.
I don’t have the space here to describe every variety we sell, but here’s an overview of my favorites and a few choice opinions on others. For the most part I eat it cooked but some dishes (my Caesar salad dressing being one) require raw cloves; I also eat it raw for taste-testing. Keep in mind that even the hottest garlic mellows pretty dramatically when it’s cooked.
There are three Washington heirlooms on this year’s list!
Nootka Rose is a San Juan Island heirloom, softneck, outstanding flavor and fairly big cloves though the heads can be smallish. I prefer hardnecks, but I really like this one!
Inchelium Red is another Washington heirloom, this one from the Colville area east of the mountains. I don’t have much use for it but it’s the mildest garlic we sell, and that appeals to some people. Softneck.
Lorz Italian was brought to the Columbia Basin from Italy by the Lorz family more than a hundred years ago. It’s early, large for a softneck and superb, full flavor – perfect roaster. One of our best-sellers.
Persian Star is one of my favorite hardnecks, good size to it, rich flavor and fairly hot. Also sold as ‘Duganskij’. The inner wrappers are striped purple (flesh is white). Discovered at a market in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, thought to be where most garlic originated.
Spanish Roja is another favorite hardneck, very hot, but hasn’t grown well for me in two attempts. Heads are small, cloves proportionately smaller as well but BIG flavor and very popular for that reason. I’ll give it another try but mine didn’t even head up this year. . . . I just got giant cloves.
Transylvanian . . . well, yeah, for the name alone! Excellent softneck (I’m sure Dracula appreciates that), very hot, a favorite for roasting. Again, I wish it was bigger.
Susan Delafield is the one I would grow if I could only grow one. She is perfection: very large hardneck, pretty with soft, pinkish wrappers and the best flavor. Discovered in Ontario, Canada by a woman of the same name, it’s becoming popular north of the border but still pretty rare in the US. Trust me, you need to grow this one! I ordered plenty this season just in case lots of you take my advice.
The “recipe” for growing this stuff may seem complicated and it’s normal not to do well with it on your first try, but keep trying! Success will come. Most people are content with the generic grocery store stuff but if that’s not you, or you’d like it not to be, opportunity awaits. Come talk to me about it.
by Jay Williams