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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Home-grown garlic perfects plenty of dishes

Henry Homeyer

I’ve read garlic is good for keeping away vampires. I’ve heard it’s good for preventing colds. I know it’s good to make almost any tomato-based dish taste better.

I’ve been growing my own for the past 15 years and have not bought any since I started. It’s the easiest crop I grow, and it’s a real money-saver, as well, particularly if you eat as much garlic as I do. Now is the time to plant it.

Garlic is one of the easiest crops you can grow. Since it is planted in the fall, it uses space that is not being used for other crops while it gets started. It is harvested in mid- to late summer, freeing up space for late-planted crops, such as fall radishes or late spinach or broccoli.

There are two types of garlic: hard neck and soft neck. Soft-neck garlic is the kind you generally find at the grocery store, and some of it now comes from China. Most soft-neck garlic is pretty much the same in terms of flavor. It stores well and can be braided, but soft neck garlic is adapted for growing in warmer climates, so it may not do well for you here.

Hard-neck garlic is so named because each bulb has a stiff stem that is surrounded by the cloves. There are several distinct types (purple striped, Porcelain and Rocambole, among others), and each has its own distinct flavor.

Plant garlic by separating the cloves of a head or bulb of garlic and planting it in rich soil well amended with compost and a little organic fertilizer. Cloves should be planted about 2 inches deep, pointy end up. Space them 3-4 inches apart in rows that are 6-8 inches apart. Grocery store garlic has probably been treated to prevent sprouting, so do not plant it. Buy from a local grower because even organic seed garlic grown in California will not do as well as varieties that are adapted to our climate.

Here is the key to success: Mulch your garlic bed well with straw or mulch hay when you plant. A 6- to 12-inch layer of well-fluffed mulch hay accomplishes two things. First, it insulates the ground as the cloves of garlic get their roots started. The soil is warm now, and the roots will grow until the soil freezes. You want as much root growth now as possible, and the mulch will hold in the heat. Second, the mulch will keep weeds down next summer. Garlic doesn’t compete well with weeds, so keeping it mulched keeps it happy. I plant, I mulch, I harvest. That’s it. Virtually no weeding.

Your fall-planted garlic will establish its roots and may even send up shoots before snow flies, but don’t worry about that. Come spring it will send up new leaves. Garlic will push up through your layer of mulch, but weeds won’t.

The garlic flowers, or scapes, will shoot up in mid-summer, twisting and turning in sculptural forms. Some gardeners believe that cutting the scapes will increase bulb size, though I have never noticed that it really makes a difference. The scapes make wonderful components in flower arrangements and are tasty in a stir-fry.

Michael and Nancy Phillips, of Groveton, are herbalists and organic apple and garlic growers. They explained to me that garlic produces chemicals that help to prevent cancer, but that you should smash or crush your garlic and then let the garlic rest for 10 minutes before putting it in the frying pan to get the benefits. So for years now, I have prepared it, set it aside and let it rest before using. It can’t hurt to do so.

Michael also taught me that garlic needs to cure before you cut off the tops. Harvest it, and then let it hang in a cool dry location for a couple of weeks before you cut off the tops. Apparently, the bulbs will reabsorb some of the nutrients in the stalk while it cures. I used to keep my garlic hanging in groups of 10 all winter in a cold basement, but now I have decided that it keeps better in an unheated room upstairs where it is a bit warmer and much less humid.

If you have excess garlic, here is a simple recipe that I love.

ROAST GARLIC WITH GOAT CHEESE ON TOAST

Peel several cloves of garlic – four or five for each dinner guest – and place in a small ceramic oven-proof baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with Herbes de Provence.

Bake at 400 degrees for half an hour, or until the garlic turns golden brown and slightly translucent. Toast slices of a baguette and spread with feta or any soft cheese. Spread the now-soft garlic on top.

You’ll see that the sharpness of the garlic has disappeared. Yum!

Looking to buy some seed garlic? Try your local farmstand first. If none is available locally, you can get some from Michael Phillips at his Web site, www.herbsandapples.com, or from Johnny’s Seeds, www.johnnyseeds.com or 1-877-564-6697.

Garlic may not really keep away vampires, but it’s so tasty and so easy to grow, you should try it. Once you do, you’ll grow it forever.

Henry Homeyer is a gardener and writer. Contact him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746, or by visiting his Web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com.