Garlic tells a story

If you're not growing garlic, you should think about it, and here's why.
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William Woodville, <i>Medical botany</i>. London, James Phillips, 1793, Vol. 3, Plate 168: <i>Allium sativum</i>.

If you're not growing garlic, you should think about it, and here's why.

One of the great pleasures of my life was living in a Zen Buddhist abbey with anywhere from two to six other people at a time. We ate together, meditated together, cooked together. We told each other stories. Many of them were about food. My favorite garlic tale is about one of the residents who, raised by an Italian grandmother, used garlic as a primary medicine. As I remember it, somewhere in the middle of his years as a seminary student, he met the love of his life. The way she tells it, early on in their relationship (think first date) she kept smelling garlic whenever he was close to her. After a while, he admitted that he had stuck garlic cloves up his nose to stave off an upper respiratory infection. She married him anyway. As far as I know, they are still happily ever after.

Garlic's medicinal value is enough of a reason to plant garlic sometime soon. Recent studies have demonstrated that garlic can reduce coronary calcification (one of the factors in hardening of the arteries) and cholesterol, and it may even lower the risk of gastrointestinal and prostrate cancer. Through time garlic has also been used for breathing-related maladies as well as for its antibacterial properties. Good to have around.

If I started talking about how tasty garlic is, I'd never get to planting instructions, so I'll make myself stick to one recipe that is easy to make and so delicious you won't want to bother with any other recipes for a while. I got it from the Down to Earth people in Eugene:

Dangerously delicious garlic blue cheese spread Ingredients
1 pound blue cheese
1-2 heads (yes, heads not cloves) of garlic to taste
1 jar of blue cheese dressing (Toby's is good)

1. Peel and mince the garlic
2. Crumble the cheese
3. Mix together in a big bowl with the blue cheese dressing
4. Refrigerate for at least a few hours to let the flavors blend
5. Serve on crackers or on a crusty multigrain bread.

I don't even like blue cheese. It doesn't matter. This is food you'll dream about. The best accompaniment: very cold sparkling cranberry juice.

On to planting. Around these parts, October is the month to plant garlic. Although it's okay to plant any random cloves hanging around in the kitchen, it is better to go get planting bulbs that have a history of successfully growing into next year's garlic supply.

Here are Down-to-Earth's three bestsellers, according to Ryan Brey:

Chesnok Red: Large bulbs with purple stripes and easy to peel cloves. An excellent garlic for baking, Chesnok Red has a lovely creamy texture. Medium pungency, long lasting flavor.

Music: Music cloves are streaked with red highlights. This is a garlic known for its consistent yield and flavor. Music has a rich pungent taste and stores well. Most heads have between four and six large uniform easy to peel cloves. A great garlic for roasting.

Early Italian Purple: Large bulbs with purple stripes and numerous small cloves. Italian Purple matures earlier than most of the other garlics.

The best time to plant cloves is a month or so before the ground freezes or in the next couple of weeks. This gives the cloves time to get their roots going before winter sets in. Plant each clove about two inches beneath the soil's surface. You don't really have to worry about which end is up when they are put into the ground. The best soil? Loose and filled with lots of organic matter. Mix lots of compost into the soil first, if possible. The reason for this is that garlic needs soil that will drain well. Otherwise the little plants will get waterlogged and rot.

Where to plant the cloves? In the sunniest spot you can find. Garlic loves sun. It also likes its own space: Planting individual cloves six inches apart in rows that are twelve inches apart is about as close as you want to get.

For fertilizer, the Down-to-Earth folks sold me a Rose and Flower Mix since the Rock Phosphate I wanted only came in 50-pound bags. Bone meal, kelp meal, or fish bone meal also work.

Once the cloves are planted and have a little fertilizer to work with, they can be covered with two to three layers of newspaper, which is then covered with more compost. The plants' shoots will grow right through the layers and be somewhat protected from any weeds that will be looking to share their space. If you can remember, garlic plants also love a dose of high nitrogen fertilizer in the spring. You won't need to do much watering. (Actually, overwatering is the biggest mistake most garlic growers make.)

The hardest thing about growing garlic is waiting until next year for the bulbs to mature. They won't be ready until about half of their leaves are green and half have turned brown. Then pulling carefully, using a tool if needed, the bulbs can be harvested and stored. Don't wash them until you are ready to use them. Instead, tie the plants together into manageable bunches and hang them over a clothesline to dry. In about three weeks, they'll be ready to eat and eat and eat.


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