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The Garlic Connection
"If you understand the uses of garlic, you understand 50 percent of all herbal medicine."
-- Steven Foster
Garlic grown with intimate care ultimately produces the best food and medicine. The rewards of self-reliance when it comes to garlic are clear: That boost to the immunity system and heritage cooking go hand in hand. Garlic varieties definitely adapt to the soil at a given site after a few years. We haven't met a gardener yet who doesn't derive great satisfaction from homegrown bulbs. Here we take a look at the basics that make for successful growing and the medicinal uses of this incredible plant ally.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
illustration by Robin Wimbiscus
Growing your own garlic begins with good seed stock. Most members of the Allium family tend to be latitude specific -- each garlic variety sizes up in response to the amount of daylight received at a particular north/south location. Garlic cloves are planted in the fall to maximize root development before the ground freezes, much like a tulip or daffodil. We want that plant to emerge as soon as the spring sunshine melts away the winter's snow. The garlic leaf drives the photosynthesis process, which in turn makes possible impressive bulb size. Garlic varieties respond to the amount of daylight length leading into the summer solstice. The hardneck varieties we grow here at Heartsong Farm are particularly suited to middle and northern climes.
A garlic bulb is made up of multiple cloves around a central pithy stalk. Garlic growers usually save the best-formed heads of garlic to use as seed for re-planting their crops. We currently have a crop of 3000 plants set in the ground back in mid-October. Eight varieties are represented in this planting, all hardneck types, with cloves selected from approximately 70 pounds of seed bulbs. Growers in the successful hand scale range work with anywhere from 50 to 250 pounds of clove stock. The subsequent harvest amounts to 300 to 1500 pounds of marketable bulbs. We recommend selecting moderate size bulbs (with an average diameter of 2 to 2 ½ inches) for seed in order to maximize genetic potential. Different varieties vary as to the number of cloves per bulb. One of our favorites, Russian Red, averages 8-11 cloves, of which 6 usually meet our planting standard for singularity and heft.
Michael Phillips sits with a basket full of organic garlic grown on Heartsong Farm. (photo: Nancy Phillips)
Individual cloves should be separated from the bulb no more than a day or two before planting. Cloves separated for longer than this tend to dry out. We select the larger cloves from each bulb, setting aside the "scrubs" for fresh eating and pickling. In some rocambole varieties, large cloves may be actually two cloves fused together. These doubles will produce two bulbs that become flattened as they grow together, and are accordingly set aside as well. Take the whole head of seed garlic and very carefully break it apart without bruising the cloves or damaging the root end. The individual cloves are planted to the depth of about 2 ½ times their size in well-drained soil of good tilth. The growing tip (the sharp pointed end) is planted pointing upward. Cloves planted upside down will develop a curved shoot that results in misshapen bulbs.
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Michael's appreciation for garlic as a grower begins with planting in the second half of October. Each clove initiates root growth in our compost-enriched earth through late fall, with little, if any, top growth. We can rely on snow cover in northern New England, so we forego any mulch. Gardeners in Zone 5 and south are well advised to provide a layer of mulch protection for the winter months. Oat straw works well, as does shredded leaf litter, applied to a depth of four inches. Mulch needs to be applied when the ground starts to freeze night after night. Ground left unmulched is subject to alternate freezing and thawing which can heave the garlic seed out of the ground wherever snow cover isn't adequate. The flip side of mulching comes in the spring: Unmulched soil warms up more quickly than mulched soil, thus giving plants a longer growing season in which to mature. Ergo, remove a thick mulch as early as possible in the spring (the mulch can be renewed in a few weeks for weed control, once the garlic is up and growing). Garlic shoots can tolerate air temperatures as low as 20°F without damage.
Spacing cloves 6-8 inches apart in rows one foot apart (4 rows to a bed) works right in the gravely loam of this farm. Sandy soils are best drip irrigated but have the advantage of easier-to-clean bulbs. Disease control of white rot and assorted Botrytis molds is achieved by crop rotation. Garlic ground should have a minimum of four years between crops. Onions and leeks (being more susceptible alliums) should be grown in another field entirely. Penicillium molds result in rotting cloves in early spring, with the infection spread at planting whenever you handle moldy seed. Don't plant even one clove from a suspicious bulb, and immediately wash your hands after holding it! Dusting the seed stock with sulfur before planting can help limit any remaining penicillium mold.
Garlic joins 90% of the plants on earth that form a beneficial relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. Garden soil is not necessarily fungal-rich due to tillage and other annual cropping practices. You can give garlic a significant leg up on production by inoculating your cloves with a mycorrhizal spore blend. A pinch of inoculum can be added to each planting hole or lightly sprinkled down the planting furrow (if that's your method). Check out BIO-ORGANICS mycorrhizal root dips for more information.
Garlic requires a regular stirring of the soil to prevent seeded weeds from out competing the crop. We find shallow hoeing in the presence of these powerful healing plants to be more meditative pleasure than work. Applying gypsum and/or an organic fertilizer blend at the time of the first hoeing (when the plants are about 4 to 6 inches tall) leads to a substantial sizing benefit. Equally important to the overall health of the garlic is watering, by rain or by gardener, two times a week. Crop plants require a minimum of one inch of water per week, and even more in sandy soils low in organic matter. The most critical stage for irrigation is during bulbing, which occurs from the end of May through early July. Lack of irrigation or rainfall during this stage will result in smaller bulbs and earlier maturity. Irrigation should be stopped about two weeks before harvest to avoid stained bulb wrappers and diseases.
Scape Removal in Early Summer
Hardneck garlic produces scapes that start appearing in May. These non-flowering stalks are topped with miniature bulbils, which if allowed to size, are about as close as the garlic plant comes to producing true seed. (Just be patient if you try planting these bulbils, as it's a two-year process before the plant becomes that cloved bulb we desire in garlic.) Removing this scape early allots more energy into the sizing bulb, whereas leaving them on until a week before harvest can result in better-storage life. Yields can be reduced by 20 percent to 30 percent if the scape is allowed to mature and turn woody. Yields are most affected in poorly fertilized soil.
We cut the scapes off when they begin to uncurl and straighten upward. This seems to be the right balance point between getting good bulb size and maintaining storage life. Scapes can be chopped into salad dressings , vegetable stir fries, and pesto before the garlic bulbs are ready to harvest. Sheep and horses are quite content to munch on these clipped topsets whenever we throw them a handful.
That Potent Moment of Harvest
Each green leaf above ground represents a papery sheath around the cloves. Once the leaf tips begin to yellow and die back, its time to dig the garlic. The lower six to eight leaves still being fully green indicate optimal harvest timing: This allots 5 to 7 protective wrappers around the bulb after curing. Our harvest here in northern New Hampshire begins the latter part of July and gets completed by the first week of August. Garlic left too long in the ground -- after all the leaves have yellowed -- splits open, resulting in dirty cloves often exhibiting rot.
David Stern of the Garlic Seed Foundation tells another way to determine when garlic is ready for harvest. Pull up a plant and cut the bulb in half horizontally when those first leaves begin to turn yellow. If you see that the bulb has developed segments that lay fairly tightly against the center stem, then it is too early to harvest. Dig your garlic only when you begin to see the cloves just barely pulling away from the center stem.
Organic Garlic from Heartsong Farm
We cure our largest bulbs upside down in 2x4 inch mesh fencing frames that hang from the rafters of our harvest shed. Good airflow assures good results: a rotating fan is almost always a must! Peeling off the dirty outer wrappers (within the fist 24 hours of digging) results in prettier bulbs that sell best at August farmers' markets. Different varieties develop varying degrees of purple striping as they cure. The energy of the green leaves goes into the bulb itself throughout this process.
Heartsong Farm's garlic rack (photo: Nancy Phillips)
We stop cleaning freshly-dug bulbs for that portion of the garlic crop that we wish to hold back for later sales, seed stock, and our own winter use. We do knock off chunks of clinging dirt but experience has taught that leaving the outer wrappers untouched is part of Nature's protection plan from humidity and spread of mould. Much of our later harvest is hung in loose bunches of a dozen or so bulbs from the rafters of our barn to cure. If it's a particularly wet summer, the garlic is redirected to Michael's shop where an occasional wood fire in the wood stove can knock back the humidity. Again, adequate air circulation around the entire plant is very important: don't scrimp on running a fan or two during those first critical weeks of curing. When the tops have dried back substantially in about two week's time, we cut the stalk off about one inch above the top of the bulb and clip the roots. Garlic at this point can be put in trays and stacked in the lowest shelves of our herbal drying tunnel or another dry spot. Keeping the fans going remains a good idea for at least another week. We will gently brush off any excess dirt and the looser outer wrappers at this point for marketing purpose, keeping in mind that its essential to leave enough wrapper layers (say 5 or 6) to provide protection for winter storage. Garlic can now be hung in mesh bags, ideally at about 40°F and around 60% humidity, to be stored. Our farmhouse cellar fits that bill perfectly.
Softneck varieties (Allium sativum var. sativum) do not produce a seed stalk. These varieties are what you typically find in the grocery store. A few softneck varieties are suitable for cold climates, the advantages being ease of braiding and slightly longer keeping ability. Each bulb generally contains between 10 to 40 cloves arranged in multiple layers somewhat like an artichoke. Softneck garlic typically can be stored for 8 to 12 months without significant deterioration.
Hardneck varieties (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) produce a flower stalk, or, technically, a scape. Typically, hardneck garlic varieties have 4 to 12 cloves surrounding this flower stalk. Hardnecks tend to be difficult to braid. The storage life of these varieties runs between 4-6 to 10 months, depending on conditions. But when it comes to full-bodied flavor and medicinal effect, hardneck garlics have their softneck cousins beat hands down! The hardneck varieties we grow at Heartsong Farm can be further classified as rocamboles, purple stripes, and porcelains.
Rocamboles produce large cloves that are easily peeled, making them preferred by chefs and food processors. Their loose skins, however, give rise to their major disadvantage: a shorter storage life than most other varieties. Most rocamboles show signs of dehydration or begin to sprout by the end of January. The distinctive flower stalks of rocamboles form tight loops of 1 to 3 coils shortly after the stalks appear. Other hardneck varieties have flower stalks, but they form broad sweeping curls rather than tight coils. Rocambole cloves range from tan to nut brown in color. Russian Red has a modest zesty bite, while Phillips (named for a town by that name in Maine where it was developed) offers slightly more heat and a proven tendency to form singular cloves. We continue to be on the lookout for a really hot rocambole but have yet to find a variety that thrives here.
Purple Stripes are named for the bright purple streaks and blotches on both bulb wrappers & clove skins. Both Bogatyr and Siberian (the two strains we offer) have 5 to 9 cloves per bulb. These store slightly longer than rocamboles and peel almost as easily. The leaves on purple stripe plants grow at wider angles to the stem. Flower stalks may make perfect 270 degree curls that leave bulbil tops seemingly afloat in the air. The full-bodied flavor of these varieties strikes a happy medium with garlic lovers.
Porcelains display satiny white bulb wrappers with only 4 to 6 symmetrical cloves per bulb. These cloves are often as large as unshelled Brazil nuts, which accordingly furnishes fewer plants per pound of seed stock, but my, what fun in the kitchen. Both Georgia Crystal and German Extra Hardy have a superior mild flavor and yield a creamy consistency when baked. Romanian Red is one of our up and coming favorites, noted for its high allicin content. We're currently experimenting with Georgia Fire (that promise of heat!) but wonder sometimes just how different a "named garlic" is genetically once it goes through a selection process in different soil types. Regardless, the smooth, tight bulb wrappers on porcelains provide the longest storage life among hardneck varieties.
Let Garlic Be Thy Medicine
Perhaps no vegetable or herb better symbolizes medicinal food than garlic. Fresh garlic has strong immune boosting and antibiotic properties. Immediate cooking destroys the allicin released upon cutting the clove. Chopping cloves up ten minutes before throwing into the fry pan allows the allinase enzyme time to produce the cancer-fighting allyl sulfur compound. In truth, more than one hundred compounds give garlic its synergistic abilities as a healing herb. Allixin reduces the infection stresses imposed upon the body by disease itself. Ajoene (produced by macerating fresh garlic in olive oil) helps prevent blood clots and works against certain cancers. Diallyl trisulfide is liver friendly and antiviral. These compounds together help reduce blood pressure and blood sugar, relieve asthma and bronchitis, and improve circulation and heart function.
Garlic actually kills infecting bacteria while at the same time boosting the body's immune system to ward off bacterial poisons that are causing an infection. The forefather of antibiotic medicine Louis Pasteur acknowledged garlic to be as effective as penicillin. We call on this herbal antibiotic specifically to thwart a developing sore throat: Try sucking on a raw garlic clove for a few hours to experience its localized effect for yourself. Everyday consumption of garlic, both raw and cooked, makes for good medicine no matter how deep you go with this amazing plant.
Cooking with Garlic
You'll find some wonderful sample recipes offered up by Garlic Goddess Pat Reppert. We highly recommend her Mad For Garlic cook book. As Pat herself says, "There are lots of garlic cookbooks out there for those who like just a touch of garlic here and a bit of garlic there, but you won't find that approach in this book. No siree, this is garlic with an attitude. Just think, you can throw away those awful garlic pills . . . and get your daily dose of garlic from your own tasty food by using the recipes that lie within the covers of this book." Recipes for Spicy Garlic Guacamole and Garlic Glazed Chicken Breasts are indeed foods to live for.
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