In Pursuit of Garlic: An Intimate Look at the Divinely Odorous Bulb is my ode to an unappreciated vegetable. It has a fascinating history that goes back to Neolithic times– as a food, a medicine, an aphrodisiac and even as currency. Today garlic is undergoing a renaissance and is being studied seriously for its health benefits. The book also includes the practical stuff–how to grow garlic, cook it, and choose the best varieties for your garden.
This excerpt is from Chapter Three, which deals with planting and harvesting.
Down to Earth with Garlic
…Over the winter I completely forgot about those little cloves snuggled under the ground. I’m sure they didn’t care. After all, they had a strong heritage of survival behind them, and they
didn’t need support from me.
My memory wasn’t even jogged by the sight of garlic shoots peeking through the ground in spring. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, like too many gardeners who live to regret their laziness, I hadn’t taken the time to mark the spots where my friend Judith and I had planted the garlic the previous October. Second, I mistook the garlic shoots for the drumstick allium (A. sphaerocephalon) bulbs I’d planted weeks before we put in the garlic (which also weren’t labeled, I might add). If I’d known what garlic looks like when it pokes its nose out of the ground, I would have recognized this as a bad sign. A. sphaerocephalon is a skinny ornamental with flowers like purple eggs at the end of long, wiry stems—dainty stems not at all like garlic’s more robust ones. I like them planted singly or in threes as accent points throughout the garden, and I’d put in a couple of dozen. It was a few weeks before it dawned on me there were too many of them showing in my garden.
Could some of these be the garlic Judith and I planted? Is this what garlic looks like?
I phoned Judith right away. “This doesn’t sound right,” she said. “The shoots should be thicker, sort of stubby looking, but they could be small because they’re so crowded. Never mind—give them some more room if you can, keep the ground weeded around them, give them a jolt of fertilizer, and you should harvest some small bulbs this summer.”
Judith, ever the optimist. My confidence faded—this wasn’t the gangbusters crop she had predicted. I didn’t even know which plants were garlic and which were ornamental alliums. Then I came across a single fat garlic shoot I’d overlooked in an out-of-the- way space by a pathway. He was a beautiful boy—for how could I think of him as anything other than a boy, with his thick stem thrusting so strongly out of the ground? He grew vigorously, with a rounded fleshy top of grassy green over a vertically veined base, and within a few days he was taller. Once he reached thumb height, his fleshy top grew into a stem that lengthened and leafed out in even spaces, sending flat blades to float out laterally from perfectly incised cuts on the stem. Now this was garlic! Each leaf was placed exactly halfway around the stem from the one below it. My boy was a marvel of balanced design.
Like many beautiful boys, however, his appearance was deceiving. I’d done my homework and had read up on garlic, as Judith suggested, and I knew that this stem was not a stem at all but a tube or sheath of leaves that originated from the real stem
underground, which doesn’t look like any stem I’ve ever seen. It’s a flat plate, called the stem plate, from which thin white roots grow downward as it pushes the leaf sheath upward. The garlic cloves—each of which contains all the elements needed to grow a whole new plant the next year, assuming we don’t eat them— develop in a cluster around the leaf sheath on top of the stem plate, creating the bulb. When the bulb has been harvested and cured, the stem plate becomes the hard, scarred surface from which you snap off the cloves to use for dinner. I’d seen hundreds of garlic bulbs in my kitchen, and I never knew that hard base was actually the stem!
It was the leaves pushing up through the center of the sheath that accounted for my boy’s quick growth—the second leaf emerged hastily from inside the first one, then the third from inside the second, like chorus girls popping out of a cake, rising higher and higher. As Judith had said, the leaves are important, even precious. Because there are so few—sometimes fewer than a dozen—losing just one leaf can reduce the size of the bulb by as much as 13 percent. A plant can lose leaves by amputation or by shade—hence the need to grow garlic with space around it and to weed assiduously.
My beautiful boy grew to a young man, and I checked him carefully every day, weeding around him and cutting away potentially interfering perennials. I watched his siblings, too—no favoritism here, even though I was banking on my young man to make me a successful garlic grower, even if it was only of one plant. I did as much as I could for the others when I could find
them in my crowded garden, digging out the plants around them, making sure they had enough water. Unfortunately, my garden had not been the right place for them from the beginning, and it was a losing battle. They remained skinny Minnies, though they all grew scapes because they were from the hardneck family of garlics. As already mentioned, garlic comes in two types—hardneck (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon ), which is closer to the ancient type and grows a scape that curls as it matures, and softneck (Allium sativum var. sativum ). Hardneck types produce a single row of six to eleven cloves, which cluster around its underground base. Softneck garlic, on the other hand, grows with no theatrics—and by that I mean no graceful, curling flower scapes. It is a shorter plant, and its bulb produces several rows of cloves, larger ones in an outer row and smaller ones inside them, closer to the leaf sheath, sometimes as many as twenty four.
Softneck garlic is the choice of large-scale commercial growers because it grows well in California and other warmer climates, which produce large quantities for sale and export; growers don’t need to remove the scapes, which would add to production costs; and softneck garlic usually can be stored longer than hardneck varieties. Softneck garlic is the one used for braiding because the stalk is pliable enough to manipulate.
But man, Judith was right. Those scapes on the hardnecks were indeed entertaining. I’d heard of the fields of sunflowers in France whose yellow faces follow the sun from morning to night, but this natural phenomenon of plant movement was happening, albeit in a different time frame, in my own front yard!
Small and skinny as they were, the scapes still put on a great show, coiling gracefully downward over a week’s time, their umbels like flamingo beaks searching the sea for food, then straightening out and pointing toward the heavens. They added an offbeat presence to my garden of busty flowers, and people taking postprandial walks down our street often stopped to ask what they were. I decided to let most of the scapes grow to maturity, as Judith did, but I decapitated some when they started to straighten out, including my boy’s. This was a few years before scapes became a gourmand’s delight, so I was ignorant of their culinary value and tossed them onto the compost heap. I hoped trimming them off would allow a few struggling plants to develop nice big bulbs for me to eat.
Well, it didn’t. Harvest time came, and I carefully dug up the bulbs and found that most of them were “rounds,” garlicspeak for bulbs composed of a single clove, but bigger than the ones in a multicloved bulb. There’s nothing wrong with rounds. They taste good—you just don’t get as much garlic. Some of my bulbs had two small cloves, nowhere near the usual yield for ‘Fish Lake #3,’ which normally produces four to six. Nevertheless, I washed the rounds off carefully, dried them in the sun, and hung all ten of them from a rafter in the garage. Once they were cured they kept
me in garlic for about two weeks.
Ah, but would my young man fulfill my dream? I held my breath as I approached him near the end of July; he looked older and a little droopy, with mostly dried, tan-colored leaves. I carefully put my trowel in the ground and dug him up. He was gorgeous! Not huge, but handsome—maybe the diameter of an Oreo with three fat cloves around his nearly dried leaf sheath. Best of all, he was proof I might eventually grow a successful crop of good garlic.
I trimmed his roots and hung him in a special spot in the garage as he dried and cured. Then I cut his stem off just above his neck and put him on a shelf in the kitchen where I could admire him as I cooked. His dry, taut skin looked pearly white, and his body was beautifully rounded. I admired him for many weeks, and then I could wait no longer.
I ate him.