The essence of garlic Garden: In a small space, with little effort, you can grow your own at home.

September 28, 1997|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Some of the vegetables we take most for granted remain horticultural mysteries, although there is no reason why this should be so. Many can be easily cultivated by the home gardener, yielding not only personal satisfaction but a superior product as well. Garlic is certainly one of these.

Garlic has gone through many ups and downs on the popularity scale over the course of its long history with the human race. At the moment, it is the darling of herbalists and alternative medicine aficionados for its reputed properties of lowering blood pressure, cleansing the body of toxins and its well-known antiseptic properties.

It has become a mainstay in the contemporary kitchen and is indispensable in many popular ethnic cuisines. This is as it should be, for the history of garlic and mankind go far back indeed.

Yet, garlic is the subject of many rumors (it will keep friends away as well as vampires, right?), much innuendo and is often misunderstood. Even its nomenclature is confusing at best: the stems are not really stems, the flower stalks have no noticeable flower, the cloves are really the base of fleshy leaves or scales, it has fertile buds that are never fertilized (go figure that one!) and it never dies -- or how else would we get more garlic, since it doesn't come from seed?

The "stinking rose," as it is sometimes called, has its origins in the dry, arid heart of central Asia, where more than a thousand kinds of wild garlic are still found, from Tien Shan in China to the Kopet Dagh of Iran in the west. It was mentioned in the Calendar of Hsia almost 4,000 years ago, and was carried to the Mediterranean regions by traders about the time of the birth of Christ. The Romans loved it so much they spread it over the length and breadth of their empire, and made it an indelible part of their cuisine.

There are two main kinds of garlic, soft-neck garlic and hard-neck garlic. Soft-neck garlic keeps poorly, though it is preferred by knowledgeable gourmets during its short season of availability. (Elephant garlic is not really garlic, botanically speaking, but a leek.)

Garlic is adaptable and enticingly easy to grow when its few cultural requirements are met.

In fact, it is possible to grow a year's supply for a family in a 4-by-4-foot area. For optimum growth, garlic prefers a loose, friable soil that drains readily, cold winter, wet spring and hot summer.

The main keys to growing great garlic at home are these: a well-prepared planting bed and good planting stock. Any ordinary garden soil will do well as long as it is not water-logged or filled with too much clay. It should be moderately fertile -- the addition of some good compost before planting is usually all that is necessary.

The garlic you buy at the store is fine to use as planting stock. However, you must take absolute care that it is unbruised, for bruised garlic cloves will not grow, but rot in the ground. The cloves should be plump and feel solid (rock hard is best) in your hand. The biggest cloves are not always the best. A medium-to-large clove will produce the best bulbs.

Protect the plate

When you separate the individual cloves it is important not to damage the basal plate, which is the hard, flat part at the bottom of the clove where it joins the main garlic stem. This is also the part that goes down when planting.

The best time to plant garlic in this area is during mid- to late fall, that is, from the first part of October to mid-November. It is important not to plant it too early, or it will make a lot of top growth that could be damaged during the winter. But you don't want to plant so late that the garlic hasn't enough time to set down good roots before the ground freezes.

The bulbs should be planted 6 to 7 inches apart, although in a fertile, well-dug, raised bed, I have grown them as closely as 4 inches apart. How deeply they are planted will depend on your judgment of your garden's soil type.

The rule of thumb is: The heavier the soil, the less deeply the cloves should be planted. In a loose, sandy loam, for example, the cloves can be planted a full 6 inches deep. In a heavier, clay-based soil, 2 to 3 inches is preferred.

The thing to keep in mind is that when the garlic is growing and harvested, the heavier the soil, the more difficult time of it both you and your garlic will have.

The cultivation of garlic is simple in the extreme. A light straw mulch applied after the ground has frozen will help it through the winter -- and help to keep the weeds down.

A whiff of spring

In the spring, it will be one of the first things to turn green. Many Asian cultures plant garlic thickly so that these first young shoots can be harvested early in the spring, much as we do with green onions, and they are considered a favorite snack when wrapped in a Peking or rice pancake. This also serves to thin the bed to proper planting distance.

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