Garlic is Weird

Garlic is Weird

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Things I've Learned by Starting a Farm

The first time our USDA agent came to visit the farm, we walked around, he declared it good land, he declared one area a wetland that can’t be cultivated, and then we started talking about our crop selection.

One of the first I mentioned was garlic. He admitted that he basically knew nothing about growing garlic: “How does it propagate? When do you plant?” My reply was: “Garlic is Weird.”

Garlic is allium sativum. It is the allium that forms cloves, except when it doesn’t. Lots of things we call garlic aren’t garlic. Elephant Garlic is a leek that happens to form cloves. “Garlic chives” and “Wild Garlic” are usually leeks or onions that smell garlic-ish. Solo Garlic really is a garlic that doesn’t form cloves, but instead makes a single bulb.

You can propagate garlic in lots of different ways. You won’t be buying garlic seed and planting it though. Garlic probably originated somewhere between the Middle East and China, growing in the mountains. It has contractile roots that pull a part of the leaves down into the ground. The leaves swell and store nutrients against the next cold, dry winter.

By the time people started writing things down, people had begun to domesticate the garlic. Pretty much every old-world written language mentions garlic as a medicine, spice, or both. After enough human-driven selection for swollen bits, it became normal for garlic to make lots of swollen bits. Those are the cloves. The actual stem of a garlic is that flat hard plate between the roots and the cloves.

But the garlic was confused by this selection. It decided that since swollen bits are great for survival, they should go everywhere. When stressed it may begin forming additional cloves above ground in the stemmy bit before the leaves spread out. When a garlic tries to flower, it produces hundreds of florets, each with a swollen bit called a ‘bulbil’ at the end which keeps the flowers from working right. Those bulbils are really just cloves at the end of the flower (called a scape). Occasionally, a garlic will also produce swollen bits called ‘corms’ on its roots. Corms are rare; they’re more common on elephant garlic, crocus, and asparagus.

It seems as a result of this propagation method that all the garlic we eat are clones of some ur-garlic from thousands of years ago. They have mutated and been selected into different varieties, but the genetic spread is small. There are programs that are slowly having some success in producing seed to allow for wider diversity. The process involves carefully removing the bulbils from the flowers with tweezers before the flowers are choked off. It’ll be a while before you can get a packet of garlic seeds for your garden.

So, to plant garlic you can plant a single large clove from last year’s heads of garlic (most common), or you can plant the bulbils, swollen stemmy bits, or if you get them, corms. You can plant garlic any time from the end of summer to early spring as long as the ground isn’t frozen.

If you plant anything other than a reasonably large clove, you’ll have to wait two or more years to get more cloves. Small cloves, bulbils, etc. will give you an undifferentiated swelling at the base the first year. You can pull these in the spring and eat them as ‘green garlic’, as pictured at the top of this post. Treat them like leek, chive, or green onion – very tasty, and milder than most cloves.

You can plant cloves from your grocery store and get garlic. Don’t! You can spread disease this way (some places even have laws against it). Use seed cloves from a reputable source. Even then you should dip the cloves in a sterilizing bath after separating them. We use 30% isopropyl for 10 minutes. This kills mites and fungus, including the dreaded allium rot. To further prevent the spread of nastiness, allium beds should be rotated one year on, three or more years off.

It doesn’t matter if you leave the last paper on when you separate your cloves. A clove planted sideways will produce just fine, though it may do better planted point up. If you plant it point down, the clove will never find the sun. An overnight fertilizer marinade before planting will encourage rooting.

You can pretty much ignore garlic once it’s planted. Water it occasionally, maybe fertilize a little, but nothing too drastic. In the spring some varieties will try to flower. For biggest cloves, pinch the scapes off – they sauté nicely in olive oil.

If you planted cloves in the fall or winter, they are ready for harvest when the leaves begin to yellow and sag in the heat of summer. For best flavor, the heads should be allowed to age a while in a warm, dry, dark place before being eaten. You can also judiciously harvest leaves during the growing season for garlic greens.

So that’s how garlic is propagated: You plant a swollen bit of leaf in the fall; eat the flowers, because they aren’t really flowers anymore. Then wait until the plant dies, to pull more swollen leafy bits out of the dirt in mid-summer. Or if you planted little swollen leafy bits, you wait a couple of years. Weird, isn’t it?

There’s other weirdnesses with garlic, but that aren’t as weird as propagation. I’ll deal with them in separate post.

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