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Growing Garlic and Other Edible Alliums

growing garlic

Growing garlic is easy to do. This is a crop that should be planted in the fall.

Text by Caleb Melchior for the November/December 2018 issue of Horticulture.

Bob Anderson is devoted to garlic. Follow his garlic-tasting ritual with a few homegrown cloves and it's hard to not get caught up in the enthusiasm: “When I talk about tasting garlic, I mean tasting the raw clove. Bite off the upper half of the clove, or the middle, and see what life has to offer for the next 60 seconds.”

“There are 10 basic types of garlic, with hundreds of cultivars, or cultivated varieties, within each type,” Anderson says. Bizarrely, many cultivars look remarkably similar. It's not until biting into the cloves that even the most devoted garlic aficionado will notice a difference.
“There's an Artichoke variety called ‘Red Toch’; it's an early-harvest variety with a rich flavor, musky and earthy,” Anderson says. “There's ‘Inchellium Red’, which looks the same as ‘Red Toch’ but has a completely different taste. It's a true medium. Then there's another Artichoke variety, ‘Lorz Italian’, with nice fat cloves. It will blow your socks off it's so hot.” This magical array is a world away from withered supermarket garlics.

Favorite garlic varieties
“Garlic is a living thing,” Anderson says. “You may not see it in motion, but every clove is evolving to become a new mother bulb.” His own journey to garlic devotion began with a single head: “Twenty-five years ago, my wife brought home a head of elephant garlic. I wanted to eat it. My wife wanted to plant it. We compromised—we planted it.”

After that initial discovery, Anderson’s interest grew. “You plant that one garlic, then the next year you have 5 bulbs, 125 the next,” he says. His enthusiasm simmered until they moved to the family ranch in central Texas. There, he started growing a wide range of varieties to sell through his website, Gourmet Garlic Gardens. Anderson has quit peddling garlic online these days, but the site is still available to connect garlic aficionados with sources of rare varieties.

If you're interested in delving into the fragrant ways of garlic devotion, Anderson suggests finding a specialty grower and buying a sampler with at least two heads of each variety. “That way, you have one head to eat and one to plant,” he says. He particularly likes Creole varieties, a group bred in southern Europe that grow well even in warm-winter climates. Creole garlics have a wide range of flavor profiles, depending on variety. ‘Rose de Lautrec’, bred in the south of France, has “a taste reminiscent of Dijon mustard.” ‘Creole Red’ is “a bit like shallots,” while ‘Ajo Rojo’ is “very hot, an instantly hot garlic.” Creole garlics are great for the South, expanding successful garlic growing into areas where other garlic types fail to thrive, like central Texas and the Gulf Coast. After all, what gardener wants to forego the joys of a year-round garlic harvest?

Garlic in a garden
Brie Arthur first began to grow alliums in response to voles destroying the bulbs she'd planted in her North Carolina garden.

“We sat out and watched them go through 300 tulips in 20 minutes,” Arthur says. “So I decided, if I couldn't grow tulips anymore, I'd try growing edible bulbs.” The following autumn, she filled the bed with garlic sets. Much to her surprise, the voles not only didn't eat the young plants, they actively avoided them.

“You'd see the mole hill heading toward the bed, then they'd just veer away.” Arthur decided to try using the garlic border as a barrier to keep the critters out of ornamental plantings. It worked. She got the best of both worlds: a great allium harvest plus a beautiful spring flush of tulip flowers. She has gone on to use alliums as rodent-repellant borders on many different types of plantings.

“I use onions as an edge on shrub borders,” she explains, “and garlic on annual plantings.” As we speak, she has more than 300 purple onions nearing harvest along the edges of her gardens. Over the past few years, she has trialed over 30 garlic varieties, but she has settled on ‘Music’ as a firm favorite. Its “enormous bulbs” and reliable performance have made this variety from the Porcelain group Arthur’s variety of choice.

“Planting garlic and onions as edging in foodscapes makes them easy to harvest,” she says. Plus, these alliums borders make use of space that would otherwise be empty.
Besides these short-term crops, Arthur values perennial alliums such as chives (Alliumschoenoprasum) and the Egyptian walking onion (A. cepa var. proliferum), an unusual onion variant that makes clusters of tiny bulbils atop long stalks that crash to the ground, causing the plants to “walk” from their original positions.

“I like to use the walking onions around mixed borders, with phlox and salvias,” Arthur says. “I also use them around my asparagus, since they stay in place all year.” These plants are fully perennial, offering year-round protection from rodents.

Growing garlic
Garlic is easy to grow, even for clumsy and lazy gardeners (like me). If you follow Bob Anderson's advice and go with a sampler, your bulbs should arrive in mid-autumn. “Plant in fall after the soil temperature has cooled and moisture levels have risen,” Anderson advises.

He points out that “garlic needs full sun. Plenty of water. It doesn't like to stand in water, but it does like to have its roots damp.” Those bed edges that Brie Arthur talks about are the perfect location.

Separate heads into individual cloves. Separate different cultivars and clearly label the areas, otherwise you'll be completely confused come harvest next spring. Shove individual cloves into the ground, three to four inches deep and four inches apart. Smooth the soil back over; water them in. That's pretty much it. Fall-planted garlic can be harvested the following spring and summer.

“The heat of oncoming summer forces garlic to mature,” Anderson says. “The longer garlic can stay in the ground, the better.” Watch for the leaves to begin withering in late spring. “When there's nothing left but seven or eight leaves, dig down and examine size of the bulbs,” he says. “If they're not big enough, cover back up and wait another week or two.”

If you decide to use the Brie Arthur Onion Barricade technique to protect vulnerable plantings, your biggest effort will be in processing and preserving the harvest. Garlic needs to be cured, allowed to dry in a shady spot with good air circulation.

“I first pull the garlic up and stash it [covered] in wheelbarrows for a week, then let it hang on my neighbor’s covered porch for three more weeks to cure,” Arthur says. “If I couldn't use their porch, I'd hang it in a hothouse or covered porch and leave a fan running while it cures.”

After curing, garlic will last anywhere from three months (typical of early-maturing Asiatic group cultivars) to ten months (for ‘Music’ and other Porcelain group varieties). If you don't have the facilities to cure large quantities of garlic, freshly harvested bulbs can be dug up and processed into paste with oil. Freeze the paste for use throughout the year.

“It's easy to just break a piece off the frozen paste,” Arthur says. Or, you could freeze the paste in tablespoon dollops (larger if you’re as fond of garlic as I am). Chuck a few of those in your minestrone, and you'll have a breath of summer on even the gloomiest winter afternoon.

You may not become a pungent-breathed garlicmeister, but even a single garlic border will bring fresh life to your cuisine. Chomp down on a few raw cloves and wait for the flavor revelations.

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