If your garlic bed is fluffy enough, you can just poke your finger into the soil and plant the clove so its pointy nose is about level with the soil line. By December, you should see grasslike wisps from these points, letting you know that your seed garlic is growing roots and is firmly anchored and entirely safe from the coming freezes.
Come spring, the top growth becomes full and spreading, and by the time the leaves start to dry and wither, in early summer, the single clove has miraculously formed an entire bulb.
Homegrown garlic is both strong and sweet; the flavors are simply more intense than those from bulbs found at the supermarket. No cook-gardener should be without it.
Having sold you on the ease and delight of garlic planting, I now have to admit that I haven’t planted garlic for about five years, for a couple of related reasons. My garden is small, so growing garlic meant giving up a fair portion of precious real estate for nine months of the year. In the same span of time, I could grow kale and get continual harvests, or a couple of crops of cut-and-come-again lettuce.
The second problem was that the bulbs were always disappointingly small, about half the size I would like. I put this down to the vagaries of our latitude (too far south) and climate (too darned hot), but I have come to see that the problem may have had more to do with the gardener. Time to consult an expert.
Tony Sarmiento, who gardens in the Woodside neighborhood of Silver Spring, is a guy versed in the theory and practice of garlic cultivation. From simple raised beds between the neighboring garage and his own vine-clad garden shed, he cultivates approximately 120 bulbs a year, setting the cloves in loamy soil in simple grids a hand span apart.
He started to quiz me.
Is your soil poor-draining? No.
Is it too acidic? No.
Do you keep the beds weeded? Yes.
Are your beds too shady? Perhaps. I have a wire fence around the plot that blocks some of the light in the perimeter beds where I tended to grow the garlic.
Do you water (they need an inch a week in the spring)? Maybe not enough.
Are the cloves planted too closely? Yes, I’m greedy for plants.
We decided I need to grow them in a sunnier bed, to place them six inches apart instead of four, and to make sure they’re watered sufficiently once spring arrives. After putting me straight, he gave me some bulbs to plant, and I promised to mend my ways.
We agreed that the world of seed garlic can get needlessly complex. Garlic bought in supermarkets is usually a softneck type, which stores well but has a lot of smaller cloves. Sarmiento prefers to grow hardneck varieties, which offer a couple of bonuses for the home cook. The cloves are bigger, full of flavor, and simply more pleasant to handle and use. Also, the stalks, or scapes, are edible and can be used like scallions. But the key is to harvest them before they grow too tall, Sarmiento said, so they remain tender and don’t divert energy from the bulb.
If you look at seed catalogues this time of year, you might think there are almost as many garlic varieties as types of tomatoes. One inventory lists more than 220 named varieties. But many are synonymous, Sarmiento said.
DNA tests have demonstrated that there are only 10 distinct garlic types, and the variations are simply the result of local environmental conditions or traits selected by growers, according to plant researchers Gayle Volk and David Stern. “All these names are not particularly meaningful,” Sarmiento said. Eight of the 10 are hardnecks, and of those, he finds all he needs in two of them: Porcelain types, which tend to be streaked violet; and rocamboles, with pronounced curly scapes.
The other thing to know is that seed garlic is not cheap — the selling point being that you have disease-free named varieties. I calculated that planting 120 cloves might cost as much as $70. I have known thrifty gardeners who go to the grocery store to pick up some bulbs to break up and plant. This goes against the standard advice — such bulbs may have been treated with growth retardant and may be diseased. You’d also be getting softneck varieties.
Sarmiento instead goes to farmers markets, where he knows the growers and gets a robust-looking porcelain or rocambole type for the garden.
Once you have found one that does well for you, select a few of the biggest to plant the following fall. “It’s always best to plant garlic you’ve grown yourself because it’s adapted to grow in your soil or climate,” he said.
The little show-and-tell basket in front of him contained an eye-popping garlic the size of a baseball and a little short of voluptuous.
“Have you ever grown elephant garlic?” he said. “I wouldn’t, it’s terrible. It’s closer to being a leek than a garlic.” Perish the thought.
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