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Hamptons Life

Sep 2, 2019 9:17 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

It's Harvest Time For Garlic

When garlic ‘sets,’ or bulbs, are cured and dry (left two) the outer covering turns a parchment white and the roots become brittle. The stem should be cut to small stubs for storage and the roots can be pruned off. Each bulb has 5 to 8 cloves. A clove has been removed from the third bulb and sits to the right. ANDREW MESSINGER
Sep 2, 2019 10:14 AM

This is the time of the year when a very particular aroma can be found in some very special backyards, farms and even through some entire counties. It’s a scent and a taste that has evoked all kinds and manners of comment. All through Northern California and upper New York State we’re in the midst of the season of the stinking rose, and as any good vampire will tell you, that means it’s garlic time.

For the last few weeks, it’s been harvest time for the bulb that we have a long-standing love-hate relationship with, and then it’s planting time through early October out here. Just remember that in cooking as well as in the garden, a little goes a long way.

For those who like to go native, there is a variety of garlic that does grow wild and can be found locally, Allium canadensis, but did you know that in the Middle Ages garlic was believed to be a protection against the plague and was prescribed as a remedy for many ailments of both man and beast? It was also used to protect against the evil eye, demons and witches, to say nothing of latter-day vampires.

The bulb wasn’t actually eaten for its culinary and antipersonnel effects until the Romans began eating it as a matter of course just prior to battle. It was said that such use instilled courage, but it’s not certain if it was the courage to eat it that carried through to the battle or if courage was instilled through its repulsive effects. In any event, a historical trip through the Roman conquests yielded not only culture and civilization, but a trail of cultivated garlic.

In recent years there’s been a great resurgence in home garlic growing both for health reasons and because of the popularity of so many ethnic foods that depend on it, but it’s also an effective repellent for insects, a potent insecticide and an effective deterrent against four-legged garden pests. Even more helpful to its popularity was the published suggestion that chewing a handful of parsley after a particularly seasoned meal would (and still will) remove most of its odor from one’s breath.

No matter the reason, these powerfully perfect little cloves give a tingle to everything from salads and sandwiches to meats, fish and soups and once you buy the right type for planting in your garden, you’re set for life as this is a virtually perpetual crop.

First, you can’t simply go to the supermarket, buy garlic and plant it in the garden. Nearly all supermarket garlic comes from California and it does not do particularly well here. Most are also treated to retard sprouting. The best types to plant in our area are from eastern parents, preferably from upstate where over four dozen types are grown.

Second, you need to know how much to buy. A pound of garlic sets will probably plant a single 20-foot row that will be more than adequate for a family of four. The sets (attached cloves) can be planted any time from mid-September through late October, with each single clove planted separately about an inch deep in a rich, well-composted soil in full sun. Set the cloves about 6 to 8 inches apart in single or wide (12-to-18-inch) rows and firm the soil around them with your fingers. Water to settle the soil and walk away.

The reason for fall planting is the same as for spring flower bulbs. Progressively cooling soils stimulates the roots to grow and these roots will be the structures that feed and support the shoot system that will emerge next spring. The shoots will then provide the energy needed to produce the next crop of bulbs or sets.

Each clove will send up a slender spring-green spear early next year just as the crocuses are popping up. You can eat the tops, which are milder than the bulbs and leave the bulbs in the ground until late in the season when they can be harvested like onions.

Fertilizing needs to be kept to a minimum to discourage too much shoot growth and encourage bulb growth. Early spring is a good time to apply a small amount of nutrients in a band along the row. A formulation such as 5-10-5 is fine, though organics are strongly encouraged.

Be sure to leave a few plants in the ground at harvest time and give them some light mulch. The following spring when the shoots appear, pull them up. Each plant leftover will have produced from six to eight dozen bulblets, each with its green top. Plant these out on a cloudy day, if possible, and you’re set for the growing season. This population explosion happens year after year so that in time you can put garlic in many areas of the garden to see if it really does repel insects, rodents and vampires.

I’m absolutely certain though that it will work on the vampires, and as a result there will be plenty left for you and your friends. If you’re successful and decide that this is the crop for you, you can grow from 3,000 to 10,000 pounds of garlic on an acre.

Botanically, garlic belongs to the lily family, as does the onion. Each garlic plant produces one of the compound bulbs. A parchment-like covering encircles the groups of bulblets, or cloves. The large mass that’s harvested or purchased in the market is called a bulb and the individual sections of the bulb are called cloves. It’s generally the cloves that are used for both planting and culinary purposes, but in the spring the green shoots of the plants can also be cut and used in cooking as well as the flower buds that appear in the spring that are called scapes. Removing the scapes also encourages large bulb production.

To harvest for winter storage, wait until the flower heads appear and the leaves die back. Dig up the bulbs, dry them in the sun or a dry area indoors and then store in a dry, airy place either hung from a hook or in a mesh bag or plaited as a rope.

Yes, there is a variety known as elephant garlic, and it’s available through many mail-order houses and some garden stores. This variety was introduced to the U.S. by an Oregonian who spent 25 years selecting and perfecting this variety for both flavor and hardiness. Besides being well-suited for the home garden, elephant garlic is an excellent choice for the very small garden or patio. Yields can go as high as 10 tons per acre and some western farmers have found it to be a great investment.

Many fishermen and outdoorsmen claim that garlic is helpful in shielding them from mosquitoes, sand fleas and ants. If you’re game to try, or if you don’t want to use repellents with DEET, then crush some cloves, shake them thoroughly in a small jar of water and spray the result on your clothes and head off into the wilds.

Some folks are so devoted to this stuff that in the late 1990s the upstate community of Saugerties started a garlic festival that drew 450 people. The festival is still an annual event, but now it draws tens of thousands of visitors the last weekend in September (this year the 28th and 29th.) You can get more information at hvgf.org. Keep growing.

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