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Growing garlic

We can’t promise it’ll keep vampires away, but growing your own garlic offers your cooking a burst of flavour

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Early Greeks and Romans ate it as a cure-all. It turned up in ancient Greek temples, Egyptian pyramids, early medical texts from across the world, and even the Bible. Contemporary myths say it wards off colds, cancer, and heart conditions while legend says it will keep vampires at bay. Allium sativum or garlic is versatile and useful in many ways.

There are at least two varieties of wild garlic growing in North America, introduced from overseas and gone rogue. They are usually much smaller (and harder to find) than store-bought garlic, which is imported from Egypt or China and prized for its superior shelf life, rather than its flavour.
The most flavourful garlic is the one you grow yourself.

Varieties to Grow

Rocambole fall garlic has a spicy flavour with seven to 12 cloves per bulb, the outside skin is purple and brown.

Purple stripe fall garlic has eight to 10 cloves per bulb, an intense fiery flavour, and purple skin that sometimes carries through to the cloves.

Marbled purple strip fall garlic has five to nine cloves per bulb. It is the best for roasting because it holds its shape. This variety is spicy and sweet at the same time.

Music fall garlic is Veseys top pick for Atlantic Canada. It offers five to seven big cloves per bulb, with a bold flavour and white skin with a blush of pink.

Garlic is one of the easiest vegetables to grow. In our region, plant the individual cloves in October, forget about them for 10 months, and harvest the new bulbs in July or August.

You can plant grocery store garlic, but I suggest you be adventuresome and try the bigger and tastier garlic you can buy at local garlic farms, farmers’ markets, or seed catalogues.

Getting it in the ground

Garlic prefers loose soil with lots of compost, in a sunny spot with good drainage. Plant the cloves eight cms apart, about five to seven cms deep, with the flat, root-end down.

In our growing season, plant in the fall, about three weeks before the ground freezes. This gives the roots time to develop.

Choose the largest garlic bulbs you can find, as these will beget the same size or larger bulbs at harvest time. Ensure cloves are firm and dry. Separate the cloves carefully, keep the papery skin intact as much as possible. Broken or split cloves invite disease.

Garlic doesn’t like to compete with weeds, so cover the area with a thick mulch of loose straw or your preferred cover. This will help keep the soil moist, and offer protection over the winter. During a mild winter, you may see sprouts; if so, add more mulch.

Watching it grow

Come early spring, sprouts will peak out through the mulch. Remove the mulch from the plants but leave it between rows. When the stems (also called scapes) grow tall enough for the tip to begin to curl and grow little bulbils (bulb-like structures), snap the top off below the curl. This allows more energy to the growing garlic bulb. Eat the bulbils raw or use them in your favourite recipes. Store refrigerated in an airtight container.

To grow larger bulbs, add a side dressing of composted manure or blood meal in May or early June.

The payoff

Harvesting garlic in the spring (known as green garlic or baby garlic) is a growing trend. The plant is picked before the bulbs are full grown and the taste is similar to scallions and used in the same way.

The traditional harvest is in late July or August when the top 75% of the leaves turn brown, and the bulbs have a papery skin. Picked too early the skin will be thick and succulent and the bulb will not store well. Wait too long and the bulb will split. Check one or two bulbs before harvesting the whole crop.

Carefully lift the bulbs on a sunny, dry day. Place them in a single layer in a warm, dark, and dry place to cure for about two weeks. Once cured, remove the dead stalks and brush off any dirt. Store your garlic in baskets in a cool, dry place for up to six months.

If you want to braid your garlic bulbs, do it shortly after harvesting. Braiding is very difficult after the stems have totally dried. Then follow the curing process.

Keep in mind: if you’ve been raised on the supermarket garlic you will find home-grown garlic much more pungent and flavourful.

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