by Jan Cashman
Growing your own food in your own garden means chemical-free, fresher, tastier vegetables and fruits. Many gardeners, not only here in the Gallatin Valley, but all over the country, are realizing this. Garlic is a plant that gardeners can easily grow in our arid mountain climate; it originated in the mountains of central Asia and China.
As most of us know, garlic is used extensively in cooking, whether for Italian dishes, Oriental food, cooking locally harvested game, garlic bread or other favorite recipes. Raw garlic, over the years, has been thought to have many health benefits including cold prevention, antibacterial and antiviral qualities, and the ability to lower cholesterol. It is a known antioxidant.
There are three basic types of garlic:
Softneck is the familiar type available in our grocery stores. The stalks of this strong-flavored garlic can be easily braided for storage and it keeps for a long time. “Early Italian Purple” and “Inchelium Red”are two good softneck varieties.
Stiff-necked (or hardneck)
Stiff-necked garlic, a favorite of gourmet chefs, has a mild, interesting flavor and is extremely hardy, but it will not keep as long as the softneck varieties. Try the hardnecks “German Red” or “Spanish Roja”.
Some say the mild-flavored elephant garlic is not a true garlic because the flavor is different. Elephant garlic produces huge bulbs up to ½ pound, but it is less hardy than the other types and does not keep as well.
Garlic is best planted in the fall—anytime from mid-September to mid-October when the ground has started to cool. Garlic heads will be smaller when planted in the spring. Enrich your soil with compost or other organic matter before planting. If your soil is alkaline, as many of our soils are here, add a fertilizer containing garden sulphur. Rotate your garlic crop each year or two. Garlic makes a good companion plant next to tomatoes, eggplants, and cabbage, even roses, to repel insects.
Separate individual cloves (pick the biggest ones) and plant 3” deep and 6” apart, point up. Mulching will protect them through the winter when roots are forming. During our cool springs, leaves will form. Then, when the weather warms up in the summer, the bulbs form. Garlic plants’ flowers and stalks, called ‘scapes’, should be pinched off to allow larger bulbs to form. The mild-flavored scapes can then be used in cooking. Fertilize when the tops and bulbs are forming. Garlic needs adequate amounts of water until mid-July when you should quit watering as the leaf tips start to turn brown. Fall-planted garlic is ready to harvest when at least half the leaves are brown and dry, in late July or August.
Once harvested, cure the garlic bulbs for 2 or 3 weeks in a cool, dry place with good air circulation. Then you can braid the softneck varieties, trim the others, and hang or store in a low-humidity refrigerator or root cellar. They will keep for 6 to 9 months.
Garlic is in the genus Allium as are leeks, onions, shallots, and chives. Deer avoid these strong-smelling plants. If you’re looking for a hardy, deer proof, interesting perennial, there are some Alliums which are grown for their flowers, not food. Fall is also the time to plant these ornamental Alliums.
Spice, herb, condiment, flavor enhancer, seasoning, whatever you want to call it, garlic is a staple in our cooking here and all over the world. And, it’s easy to grow. Plant some today!