Homestead Heros, Plants of Promise: Garlic

Homestead Heros, Plants of Promise: Garlic

Homestead Hero: Garlic

Garlic Illustration

Ok, so this week I’m back on track, delivering what I promised last time!  The king of alliums… GARLIC!  I know a lot of folks who just won’t grow garlic because they say it is too invasive, and costs next to nothing at the store.   Once you plant it you can’t get the garlic out of that spot, and it will spread, it’s cheap to buy, and…  Whatever!  Here on the Traditional Catholic Homestead, I say garlic is one of those garden giants that you just can’t do without on the homestead.  I’ve never had a problem harvesting every last bit of garlic from my plantings, and so long as you do that it just will not come back unless you plant it in that spot next year.  As an aside, I did leave some puny heads in my garlic planting area last fall and it has come back with a vengeance this year.  I left them there on purpose though, and hopefully the heads will size up and I can use them as seed stock, or most likely food this year(don’t want to propagate puny clove genetics don’t you know!).  As for the cost, I think the garlic you get from the store is a pale comparison to what you’ll be able to grow for yourself, plus you’re not depending on someone else to supply your nutrition for you.  Who wouldn’t pay a little more for a better product and peace of mind?  Most of the varieties of garlic you get from the supermarket are some cultivar of California White, a softneck garlic that keeps and ships well.  While this may be a recipe for commodity success, the flavor profiles pale in comparison to the many cultivars of garlic available to the homestead gardener.  Garlic comes in three basic varieties with many specific cultivars available within each type.  Those types are hardneck, softneck, and rocambole.  Each has specific characteristics attributed to that type, but they are all easy to grow and delicious.

Growing garlic is a relatively simple affair: plant a clove in the ground early to late fall, let it overwinter, water through the growing season, and harvest late summer.  Garlic is hardy and will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, but to grow truly great garlic you should have loose soil with plenty of organic matter

Keep your garlic patch well mulched.  They don't like a lot of competition, and the organic matter is a boon!
Keep your garlic patch well mulched. They don’t like a lot of competition, and the organic matter is a boon to production!

worked in.  You’ll want to ease off on the watering towards the end of the season to help the skins toughen up to reduce damage during harvest, but for the most part there aren’t any real tricky aspects to growing garlic.  It’s easy, tough, and prolific… who wouldn’t want to grow something like that?!?!  There can be a bit of an art to getting consistent crops of beautiful garlic year after year, but if you’re just interested in growing and keeping garlic for your own use, then there’s not a whole lot to it.  I highly recommend the book: Growing Great Garlic written by the folks at Fillaree Farms in North-Central Washington state.  The author provides a ton of history, growing, and marketing information.  It’s a quick read, is well written, and packed full of illustrations, and useful tips.  It’s the best source of knowledge that I’ve found on garlic growing, seed saving, and production.  If you’re seriously considering growing garlic on any sort of scale you should purchase and read this book a couple times before starting out.

Garlic is not only a tasty addition to your recipes, it is a powerful medicinal.  Garlic has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, is anti-bacterial, and anti-viral.  It can be used to create a natural insecticide by steeping a couple crushed cloves in warm water, adding a couple tbs. of cayenne pepper, a drop or two of dish soap, and away you go.  I’ve gone from planting my garlic in a block to spreading it around on the perimeter of my permanent growing beds.  Garlic acts as a natural pest and deer deterrent, so I hope by having this garlic blockade surrounding my mainline garden crops I can reduce pest pressure.

Scapes starting to come to maturity.
Scapes starting to come to maturity.

I grow mostly hardneck garlic varieties which produce a flowerhead called a scape.  Many gardeners will cut the scape off claiming that it takes energy away from developing large heads of garlic.  I’ve never taken the scapes from my garlic and haven’t noticed any ill affects.  Now if you decide to cut back the scape, they can be used as a zesty addition to stir fry, used like a pungent green onion, or made into a pickle(which sounds fantastic by the way… maybe I will harvest some this year just for this!).  The scape makes a flower that attracts beneficial insects like predatory wasps, and native pollinators.  After the plant matures a small bulbil that resembles a tiny garlic clove is formed at the end of the scape.  These can be planted and in a few years will produce a decent head of garlic.  The bulbil can also be used like the immature scape in a stir fry, or in pickles.  On some varieties along with the bulbil, you may get a true garlic seed.  This seed is tiny like an onion seed.

There is a movement to encourage this seed production to help preserve genetic diversity in garlic.  You see while there are many cultivars of garlic available, there is very little genetic diversity.  The problem with this is that while garlic is

Scape flowers, producing bulbils and hopefully a couple seeds.
Scape flowers, producing bulbils and hopefully a couple seeds.

highly disease and pest resistant, if something does come along that really likes to kill garlic, there is a chance that it could kill all of the garlic everywhere.  Think potato famine on this one.  Vegetative clones like garlic and potatoes are genetically identical to their mother plant, and as such are potentially susceptible to widespread failure.

One of the great things about garlic is that once you plant and grow some you automatically have seed stock for next season.  After you harvest and dry/cure your garlic crop select the best heads with the largest cloves to plant for next season.  It’s really that simple!  Set aside your best stock and replant it for next year.  Just remember the old adage Big Cloves Make Big Heads, and you will be set.  I am currently growing the fourth generation of a Hardy German White garlic at our place, am on my second generation of several other cultivars, and just added a couple more to the mix last fall.  As you can tell I really enjoy growing my own garlic!  It’s fun and rewarding… try it I think you’ll really come to appreciate this Homestead Hero!

Our hero!  Easy, prolific, and multi-talented!  All hail the king...GARLIC!
Our hero! Easy, prolific, and multi-talented! All hail the king…GARLIC!

Stop in next time… I’ll introduce you to our garden queen COMFREY!!!

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