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There is a charming poster that shows a full-color closeup of a few cloves of garlic; it is labelled "Italian caviar," and that sums up garlic excellently. Garlic qualifies as a great vegetable because not only is it an indispensible cookery ingredient, it can well and delightfully be eaten as and for itself (squeeze the paste from roasted garlic out on some lightly toasted French/Italian bread, pop a young, slightly acidic red wine, and preview Paradise).
Aficionados of garlic cultivars are perhaps not as vociferous as chileheads or tomato fanciers, but we daresay they rank ahead of even corn advocates. Making particular choices from the wealth of available possibilities is difficult. We are fortunate in that there is a garlic specialist--Filaree Farm--in our, as they put it, "eco-region"; we thus have, at the least, a good basis for believing that the types we select will at least grow well here. (In much of the information on this page, we are closely following Filaree's helpful combination catalogue/guide.)
There are a myriad types of garlic. They can be classed in hierarchies, the top levels of which have some botanical significance and the lower levels of which are more expert experience than botany (at least so far--the field is still advancing). The critical factors in selecting even classes of interest are two: taste, and storage ability (for there is no point in growing a year's supply of a kind that only keeps for a few months). Suitability for growing is third by so much that it scarcely figures in out here; to the minimal extent that it does, it would be to eliminate that class called "Creole" garlics, which "perform best in mild-winter and southern climates". Here, then, are the key data.
The highest-level division is into "hardneck" and "softneck" types (see the discussion down the page under "Biology"). Very broadly speaking, hardnecks have more intense flavors--they are more closely related to their wild ancestor--but lesser storage capabilities, while conversely softnecks are excellent "keepers" but often milder. (That is a broad-brush simplification with numerous exceptions and half-exceptions.)
There are three main subdivisions of hardnecks ("rocambole", "porcelain", and purple stripe") and two of softnecks ("artichoke" and "silverskin"); some have further subdivisions. Here are those divisions, and some taste notes (not from us).
Under good storage conditions, which are not hard to achieve (room temperature and medium to low humidity), one can hope for these results:
Rocamboles, however, have a tendency to dehydrate in storage under dry conditions (less than about 50% humidity), which we tend to have out here.
Sheer logic allows us to extract some fairly simple conclusions from the data given above. Of the kinds that can potentially store a full year, the Creoles seem poor choices in our region, which leaves the silverskins; but the silverskins are undistinguished in a culinary sense, so we want only as many as necessary--say ¼ of our crop, to get us from 10 months to 12 months post-harvest. in the range of 7 to 9 months post-harvest, we have the porcelains and the "artichoke: types: but--to us, anyway--"mild-tasting garlic" sounds to us like an oxymoron, so we can discard the "artichoke" types and say that another ¼ of our crop will be porcelain types. And, because we have already eliminated the "artichoke" types as wimpy, the other ½ of our crop could be either rocambole or purple-stripe types--we opt for purple stripe, because they store a little better and may be a little better culinarily, so a full ½ purple stripe (and somehow, those just sound better than the rocambole types). So:
There: wasn't that easy?
So far, so good; now it gets harder. We need to choose within the types specified above. At this level, one has to go by either extensive personal experience (which we lack), or the catalogue descriptions in the seedsmen's catalogues. And, at the outset, one has to be prepared to experiment for a few seasons.
This season--2012--we are just returning to full gardening (other than corn, pease, tomatoes, and peppers) after a lapse of a couple of years owing to time unavailability, so we're not going to go into garlic much (we have a couple of stubborn plants that come up every season even neglected, but that's it). But for next year, we're looking at six dozen garlic plants--that equates (under ideal conditions--full growth and no storage losses) to using about a bulb of garlic every five days through the year, so even for garlic lovers like us there's a margin for error--and so we'll trial several types, subject to order minima. (Filaree has a ¼-pound minimum order per type; though this varies with type, and even date, that is very, very roughly 16 cloves minimum--so we can probably order no less than one-quarter of our crop as any one type.)
Unlike the case with many--most--vegetables, there are, so far as we can see, no "obvious" choices within the categories we have just discussed, so you need to read up, in catalogues and elsewhere, about particular types within those categories. Here is what we have chosen:
One source remarked that "It is traditional to plant garlic on the shortest day of the year. Whether this is for symbolic or practical reasons is unclear." (In case you've forgotten, that would be around December 21st or so, the Winter Solstice). That same source continued, "The usual advice to gardeners is to plant fall garlic soon after the first major frost of the year, usually between mid-October and late November depending on your local climate."
Another source, an excellent northern-tier University site linked farther below on this page, said:
Time of planting is critical since both optimum shoot and bulb development require a cold treatment. Garlic . . . should be planted in the fall--usually within one to two weeks after the first killing frost (32° F). . . . Ideally, roots should be developing and shoots should be emerging from the clove but not above the soil at the time of the first hard freeze (28° F). Garlic shoots will emerge from the ground in [the spring]. Unless given a proper cold treatment prior to planting, garlic planted in the spring will often produce weak shoots and poorly developed bulbs. Lack of scape development in hardneck garlic and bulbing in all garlic is usually due to an inadequate cold treatment.
Yet another source observes that "In the North, plant 4-6 weeks before the ground freezes." (Remember that soil in a raised bed may freeze earlier or later than the surrounding ground.)
Out here, the average first overnight low of 32° comes in late October (the 28th); the first dip to 28° (again, on average) comes about three weeks later, on November 17th. It thus looks like we should roughly target early November for our garlic planting--but perhaps the best plan of all, for us or you, is to consult a reasonably local garlic authority.
Garlic wants a sunny spot. The soil should be rich (but not too rich, or the tops will overdevelop). Garlic does not do well in really sandy or really clay-ey soils, or soils lacking in organic matter; the soil should be loamy, and well-drained.
While one can add soil amendments, there's usually little one can do about excesses already present. Still, research has shown that high phosphorous levels can decrease plant height, average bulb weight, and usable yield, so keep that in mind.
|Image, digginfood.com: grow.cook.eat|
Obviously, one always plants garlic where it is to grow.
Plant individual cloves with the root end down--be sure you don't set them upside-down! The "pointy" end goes up--the flat end goes down! Set them an inch or two deep. Mulch them as soon as they are planted, using some loose stuff that the emerging stalks can easily penetrate (straw is excellent). Some sources say to set them 6 inches apart; others--deep-bed sources--suggest that 4 inches will suffice. Obvious, but probably worth saying anyway: large cloves will produce large bulbs, and small ones, small; save the smallest cloves from your seed bulbs (usually the interior ones) for kitchen use and re-plant only the larger ones.
Garlic is pretty winter hardy, but it can be damaged by a combination of very cold temperatures and a thin snow cover. If such conditions arise, or seem likely to, cover your garlic with a mulch of straw to protect it (probably a good idea in any case).
In the spring, the garlics will send up greens through the mulch. When those emerge, begin watering them, more or less like any garden green. If you can apply some extra nitrogen at this time, so much the better.
Somewhere around mid-May, the garlics will finish their green-growth stage and start bulbing up. Around that time you can slightly cut back their watering.
Vital note! Hardneck types will, somewhere around early June, send up a flower stalk: keep a close eye on it. About a week after those stalks begin to uncoil, turn woody, and stand upright, cut the stalks off about ½ inch above the top plant leaf. Fail in that, and you'll get little if any bulb.
As your anticipated harvest time approaches, keep watering minimal: the topsoil should not be really wet, or the bulbs may mold, or at least stain.
As harvest really draws nigh, the leaves will start turning from green to brown. Opinions vary about exactly when to strike, but expert consensus sems to be soon after half or so of the leaves have gone brown. Do not wait for most or all of the leaves to go brown.
Harvest by simply taking the bulbs out of the ground. Do not leave freshly dug bulbs in direct sunlight for more than a very few minutes--they will more or less cook. Hang dug bulbs somewhere indoors and let them cure--two or three weeks is probably what that will take in our climate. When curing is satisfactorily complete, the neck of the plant can be cut about ½ inch above the bulb without any moisture showing (if you try it and detect moisture, curing is not complete). Cured garlics can be neck- and root-trimmed and stored in hanging net bags (like onions).
Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:
Modern garlics are of only two species: Allium ophioscorodon, the "hardnecks", which produce a flower stalk as did their wild ancestor; and A. sativum, the softnecks, which usually do not produce a flower stalk.
Hardnecks, left to their own devices, will produce small bulbils at the ends of their stalks (reminiscent of Egyptian onions) and little bulb below ground; they must have the the flower stalk removed to bulb up properly. Softnecks are non-bolting garlics that freely produce underground bulbs instead of flowers. (This simplified view has complicating exceptions.)
The Allium genus is part of the Liliaceae, the lily family--which includes onions, leeks, and asparagus among its more useful edible members.
Let's not re-invent the wheel: this USDA site (also linked above) covers the ground.
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