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Thu, April 09

Great Garlic

Everybody should be growing garlic! ...OK, maybe not everybody, but my enthusiasm for the vegetable is well earned. Garlic boasts some pretty amazing benefits far beyond its culinary reputation -- large quantities of powerful anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory effects, immune system boosting and so on.

Those of you who have grown garlic before may be wondering why it is I am writing about it so early in the season since it isn't typically planted until mid-October in the Verde Valley. The answer is: Great Garlic!

Garlic is one of the easiest plants to grow and have moderate to decent success. Just plop it in the ground and wait. And if moderate to decent is all you're looking for, you may not need to read on.

Growing great garlic takes a little more attention and preparation, and I truly mean a little.

To give your garlic the chance to be the best it can, you need to start with the soil.

While all plants can benefit from a healthy dose of compost, it makes garlic sing. Over the long six to eight months of mostly underground growth, the compost slowly feeds the burgeoning bulbs with numerous trace minerals and nutrients, while the microbial activity helps to protect the plant, elevate the soil temperature, and regulate moisture. These combined factors ensure a healthy, steady growth cycle for the garlic without the usual extremes associated with chemical fertilizers and soils low in organic matter.

Most people will usually wait to build their beds and add compost until the last minute, but it really pays to do it ahead of time (like now). By designating and digging up your planting area in advance, you allow the time for your compost to integrate with the soil and finish breaking down. A little known fact is that compost can actually tie up nutrients in the soil if it hasn't completed its decomposition process. However, if you mix in aged (but not fully decomposed) compost to your garden beds, it will utilize the soil microorganisms to fully break down while helping to build structure and water-holding capacity.

Garlic hates weeds. They and most members of the Allium family including onions, leeks and chives, compete very poorly with other plants, and will show this with smaller bulb size. Another benefit to pre-building your garlic beds is to allow the first wave of weeds to sprout and be knocked down with a hoe, without disturbing your gently germinating cloves. Once you do plant your garlic in mid-October, mulch often around the stems to suppress weeds and retain moisture. I find bagged leaves and pines needles make a wonderful mulch and are easily available around this time of year.

The next step to growing great garlic is to have a little fun. Why stick to the normal, boring white bulbs you most often find in the supermarket, when you can plant dozens of other breeds coming in a variety of colors, sizes and even flavors.

I especially recommend trying a few "hardneck" varieties. Unlike the usual market variety, hardnecks are much easier to peel, have larger but fewer cloves, beautiful colors, and in my opinion, a richer flavor. They don't store quite as long, only about three or four months versus the "softneck" varieties which can keep for as long eight months. This is why most markets carry more of the softnecks on their shelves.

This is not to diminish the fine qualities of softneck garlics, which are defined by their soft, pliable stem attached to the clove, whereas hardnecks have just that, a hard stem or "neck." Softnecks can often have a spicier more pungent flavor to them, allowing smaller quantities to be used in dishes for flavor. They are also great for braiding and hanging in your kitchen or pantry to be used throughout the year.

There are many seed catalogs specializing in dozens if not hundreds of varieties of garlic ranging from red to purple to pure white. These suppliers can guarantee you a specific variety and are great for sampling in the many different types. However, garlic seed from catalogs is often quite expensive, and can be unpractical if you aren't buying enough to get a bulk discount.

For the bulk of your garlic production, try buying the largest bulbs from farmer's markets or health food stores. Buying from local growers ensures that the variety you are planting will do well in you area. Some garlic from regular supermarkets can be planted, but be careful as they are often dusted with a chemical to keep them from germinating, preventing them from growing in your garden.

Next year, save your largest and best bulbs and plant the cloves from them in next year's garden. This will select for the best of the best and give you the pleasure of planting your own "seed."

Lindsay Schramm is an organic gardener living in Cottonwood.

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