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Growing Garlic, The Fragrant Pearl

Garlic is Easy to Grow

I'm not sure whether aging makes us gradually prefer stinkier food, or if our taste buds simply become tougher. Either way, in my youth you wouldn't catch me near a clove of garlic. Now, I search for different varieties and flavours to grow in my garden.

Varieties of Garlic

A click into your internet search engines will quickly list many garlic seed sources, which can number up to 80 varieties with some farms. Varieties are divided into sub-groups of Porcelain, Rocambole, Purple Stripe and Artichoke. For the novice, the differences aren't too varied among the groups. Most garlic grows easily, keeps well and flavours range from very mild to fiery hot. They almost sound like chilis.

The primary difference though is the right main group for your growing season. Hardneck garlic, which produces the firm centre stem, is best for cold climates. They need 12-14 hours of main summer light to perform well. Softneck garlic, with a minimal centre stem, needs 10-12 hours of fall season sun to do well. Each will grow in the other's area but neither will grow particularly well.

In my area, hardneck is the best choice as I get very cold winters which leaves only the summer to grow crops. But within the hardneck group, I have many choices: fiery Leningrad, huge Fish Lake, lively Puslinch, rough Purple Max, the elegant Persian Star to name but a few. This coming season, I'll be planting Red Stripe, Elephant, Music and Russian Red garlics. The latter two are new to me and I look forward to trying them. Music is very flavourful while Russian Red has quite a kick.

Why Grow Your Own Garlic?

Why bother growing garlic when you can buy it cheap in the stores? Because store garlic is very bland. Until you try homegrown garlic in some of the varieties, you are missing incredible taste experiences. Hard to believe, but garlics really do have individual flavours much like ice-creams.

Cultivating Garlic

For hardneck variety mail order, order your garlic in June for September delivery. That's because we must plant the garlic between September to October. The seeds need cooler fall weather (before ground freeze) to set their roots and be ready for spring growth. Come spring, before the snow has barely melted, garlic will already be pushing out lots of top growth. And it will grow until late June or July when it begins to die back for harvest.

Before planting out garlic, I add all the humus and composted manure to the soil that I can. Garlic is a hungry feeder; the more nutrition you give it, the bigger and better it grows. I also add bonemeal, some kelp, and turn it in. To plant the seeds, pull off one clove from the main head. Leave the paper cover on and plant the seed, pointed end up, about 2-3" (10-15cm) deep and cover with soil. Space the plants about 10" (50cm) apart. Most importantly, mound the soil over the bulb so that water doesn't pool on or around the bulb. Garlic needs regular watering, but flooding or pooling will quickly rot your efforts. Mulch also helps conserve water.

During the growing season, a tall, curling centre stalk will appear. This is called a scape. It's best cut off before the seed head forms and robs the root bulb of nutrition and vigour. Scapes are lovely used in stir fries.

Come early July, the plant leaves begin turning yellow indicating all further growth is finished. Time to pull up my harvest. In good soil, the roots are thick so I use a spade to pull out my plants. Once they're out, I shake off the soil and spread out the plants in a dry, shady area to ripen. This will take about 3 weeks. Once the leaves are dry and crispy, I cut off the stalk leaving an inch or two above the head. The base rootlets are cut right off.

Storing Garlic

For storage, the fridge is the worst place as it triggers growth or dehydrates the bulbs. If stored in oil, the jar must stay in the fridge to avoid botulism. My preference is my cold cellar on slatted shelves where I lay them in single layers spread slightly apart to avoid mold. Then all winter long I can revel in flavourful stinkiness.

Photo: Garlic in the Author's Garden - Yellowing Leaves Mean Time to Harvest Your Garlic

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