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Monday, August 29, 2011

Plant garlic now, thank yourself next year

Oh the possibilites
By Wes Eaton

The time has come to plant garlic. Don’t waste your time planting cloves you buy at the grocery store, however--according to Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, these may have been sprayed with an anti-sprouting chemical. Instead, buy a few extra of those precious heads the next time you’re at the Fulton Street Farmers Market. But beware! Just because it’s on a farm stand does not mean it was grown in Michigan. Not to say non-Michigan produce is bad in itself, it’s just that, in this case, you definitely want to buy the local kind. Local garlic is of the "hardneck" variety. Also known as seedstem, it's different from the tepid, "softneck" garlic we have been eating most of our lives. Why should you care? Softneck garlic comes from Chile or California, and while there might be some good-sized cloves in the head, there are also too many smaller ones, which are pesky to peel and basically filler. Though hardnecks can be more difficult to grow, they taste better and the clove size is more uniform.

Not so long ago I felt what many of you must be feeling right now. My friends would tell me about hardneck garlic and I’d complain about the price, availability and overall elitism of preferring one garlic variety to another. I was content peeling ever-smaller Californian or Chilean cloves. If I got irritated, I’d just pour another glass of wine. Things changed when I finally took some local garlic home and witnessed the difference for myself: full, off-white, robin-egg-sized cloves, pungent fresh juices concentrated homogeneously throughout the moist and snappy lobe. The outer skin was white and beneath it the hues turned purple then white again where the root was bared. Already I had feelings for this garlic like I’ve never had for any member of the onion family. I chopped softly, finely, gently sautéed in yellow, fatty butter and spread on a fresh warm, crusty baguette. No woody, stem like flavors. No acidic overtones. No spongy chew near my molars. Just a baked-Macintosh-apple-like consistency with a rich, heated acidic sugar flavor. I hid the remaining cloves in the crock and out-of-sight.

Garlic, it plays well with others

I went back to the farmers market to tell the farmer how good his garlic was. His tight-lipped smile and precise nod signaled to me that we had an understanding. The garlic spoke for itself; he need not explain. Just then an older Italian woman asked the price for a gorgeous bunch hanging between us. She was not going to pay $15 for a dozen heads, forget the culinary ecstasy that awaited her. Good news for me because the garlic supply runs low about this time of year, precisely when you wish you had a few extra heads to roast while you’re planting a couple of rows beside the garage.

According to my sources, now is the time to plant. Prepare your soil--get rid of weeds, loosen up the top few inches and mix in some compost (four dollars for 50 pounds of organic from Lubbers Family Farm). Plant in full sun, about an inch or two deep with the root end down, keeping cloves three to a foot and rows at least a foot apart. Cover with dried grass or other mulch. Getting them in the ground now will give them time to develop a root, keeping them in place during the freeze. When the snow tapers off and the maple sap begins to run, look for the first shoots. Eventually these will curl over into scapes, a delicate, seasonal morsel. Snip them off and eat to encourage bulb growth. Harvest when you begin to see new garlic on the tables at the farmers market.

By the way, there are several health benefits to eating garlic raw. It lowers cholesterol, warms the body, improves circulation, and has fungicidal and antimicrobial properties. Eating fruit or fresh parsley afterward will mitigate (what some consider) the "offensive" aromatic effects. 

The editors suggest saving a large portion of the garlic harvest for use in many loaves of roasted garlic no-knead bread. For the recipe, click here!

Former Siciliano's staffer Weston Eaton is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Michigan State University. He lives with his wife and dogs in Grand Rapids, MI, where it's only a matter of time before someone invents a garlic-flavored beer.  


  1. Correction: the time to BUY garlic from local farmers is now, the time to PLANT garlic is closer to Columbus Day (Mid October). So the thing is, by the time October gets here, most likely you will not be able to find good Hardneck Garlic. Put up a stash someplace dark until then...

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