The result of a little-heralded election earlier this year will be welcome to those of all parties, and especially to gardeners and gourmets: The International Herb Association, based in Jacksonville, Fla., and the Herb Society of America, based in Kirtland, Ohio, have voted garlic the herb of the year for 2004.
While garlic may be a more controversial choice than last year's winner, basil, its fans will be delighted that this powerful and versatile plant is getting the attention it deserves.
Garlic has been cultivated for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians worshipped it and left clay images of it in tombs. It has always been popular for both culinary and medicinal uses. Recent research is confirming what people have always believed -- that garlic is both tasty and good for you. Garlic has been shown to lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure, stimulate the immune system, and inhibit the growth of intestinal parasites. The sulfur compounds in garlic (which give it its potent aroma) are antioxidants that protect cell membranes and DNA.
Some people even swear by garlic's ability to discourage mosquitoes. Commercial preparations such as Mosquito Barrier and Garlic Gard are sprays for yard and garden. Eating garlic or rubbing it on the skin are said to discourage mosquitoes from biting.
When it comes to kitchen uses, garlic, which might have originated in Central Asia, is generally associated with Mediterranean cooking. There are few foods that garlic can't enhance. It helps out salads, spreads, dips, marinades and sauces, as well as pate, pasta and pickles. It's used to flavor chicken, lamb, seafood, veal and pork, and it's terrific in mashed potatoes. Roast garlic is even touted as giving a "nutty" flavor to ice cream and brownies. The strongest flavor comes from fresh raw garlic cut into tiny pieces, the mildest from bulbs roasted in olive oil. (A few people are allergic to garlic. Eating it gives them a mild to strong respiratory or digestive reaction, and it can cause burning or blistering of skin if applied topically.)
Garlic is a member of the lily family, the alliums, and is related to shallots, leeks and onions. There are hundreds of varieties, but the most common one, the one that's in all the grocery stores, is Allium sativum var. sativum, or softneck garlic. It's most widespread because it's the easiest to grow and keeps longer than hardneck garlic (var. ophioscorodon), which can be found at festivals and online. There is also elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum), which is much larger and milder.
Garlic is not a cinch to grow, but if you have experience with other bulbs, such as daffodils and tulips, you should succeed. Most commercial garlic is dried before being sold, and the taste of the fresh product can be a revelation even to garlic lovers.
Garlic likes full sun, humus-rich, well-drained soil, and moist but not wet conditions. You can plant garlic you buy from the grocery store, or buy other varieties from catalogues and online sources.
One source with which I am familiar is Peaceful Valley Farm Supply (888-784-1722, www.groworganic.com). It offers no fewer than eight varieties, most of them organic.
Plant individual cloves (a bulb may have as many as 15 to 20 cloves) one to two inches deep, about four to six inches apart. The larger the cloves, the bigger the bulbs will be. Plant them with the pointed end up. Rows should be about 18 inches apart. A thick covering of a light-textured mulch, especially in colder, drier climates, will help plants through the winter. You can use straw or chopped leaves.
Garlic is traditionally planted in the fall. Folklore says to plant it on the shortest day of the year, and that December day may work in a Mediterranean climate. Mid-September is about right for this part of the country -- four to six weeks before the first frost. Prepare the soil carefully; the looser it is, the better. Add rich organic material, such as composted manure, and a complete fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, 10-6-4, or other general-purpose fertilizer. The plants will send up shoots right away -- even through the mulch. They may have to be watered if conditions are dry. But don't water too much; garlic hates that. In the spring, use compost or one pound per 50-foot row of general purpose-fertilizer as side-dressing.
Garlic also dislikes competing with weeds. Mulching will help, but keep beds clean.
The garlic will be ready to harvest in late July or August, when the bottom third of the foliage is brown and the top part is still green. You can't just pull the bulbs up; the tops will break off. Loosen the soil with a hoe or a fork-like tool that's usually used to harvest potatoes. When the bulbs are exposed, lift them out. You can use them right out of the garden, or tie them in bunches and dry them for a couple of weeks in a cool, dry place. When they have dried, trim the tops to an inch or two and snip off the roots.
Because most animals do not eat garlic, the main cause of crop failure is fungus. This results in the cloves failing to "clove out." Lack of growth is caused by too much water, too much heat, poor soil or too many weeds. Preparing the soil carefully with cultivation and organic material will help to avoid problems. As with any other gardening endeavor, experience helps.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.