READY FOR PLANTING Seynab Ali prepares seed garlic at Fresh Start Farms near Lewiston.
To experience the wonder of garlic, you have to grow it for yourself. It's an easy enough gateway crop the blackest thumb can tackle, even on a stoop in pots. All garlic requires is patience. It sits in the ground for as long as we humans gestate a pregnancy. In Oregon, I learned the simple adage to plant garlic on Columbus Day and harvest your crop around the Fourth of July. Buy disease-free, preferably local bulbs in the fall, break them into cloves, plant each one root-side down an inch into rich soil, cover with straw mulch, and forget about them until June, when you harvest the delicious green flowering stems (scapes), and then a month or so later, dig up the gift of a regenerated bulb.
"It's just so much fun to grow," says garlic evangelist Jon Thurston, who recently led a workshop at UMaine Extension's Rural Living Day in Waldo County. "It's a heck of a lot easier than growing tomatoes."
There's a dramatic difference between vibrant, fresh garlic and supermarket garlic, predominantly grown in China, where it's treated with radiation and chemicals to prolong shelf life and discourage sprouting. This spring, first look for green garlic, the mild, immature cloves and stalks used more like scallions. Then grab bundles of those curlicue scapes, to grind up raw into pungent pestos, pickle and grill, roast or sautée. Scapes grow sweet when cooked, akin to asparagus or green beans. Gobble them up in late spring before you blink, and they're gone.
Forty years ago, Thurston says, nobody talked about growing garlic except in Gilroy, California. After all, garlic didn't gain a foothold in the US until the 1920s. The influx of garlic-rich cuisines brought by waves of immigration and a growing awareness of garlic's health benefits (antibacterial and antioxidant) of late have increased our devotion to the stinking rose. The recent study linking the Mediterranean diet to a reduction in heart disease should only boost garlic demand.
As a garlic connoisseur, you should learn your varieties. Commercial growers favor softneck garlic (Silverskins and Artichokes), which stores better, lends itself to braids, and yields more concentrated — albeit smaller and harder to peel — cloves. Home gardeners and small farmers often plant hardneck (Porcelain, Rocambole, and Purple Stripe) varieties for their marketable scapes and large, meaty cloves. Nate Drummond of Six River Farm in Bowdoinham grows mostly Music and German Extra Hardy garlic, juicy, white-skinned Porcelain breeds. Six River cured and stored bulbs to sell at Brunswick farmers' markets until running out in March.
Unfortunately, garlic is no longer a headache-free crop. Two previously uncommon garlic diseases hit the Northeast in recent years. The most insidious, says Eric Sideman of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, is white rot, with black specks (sclerotia) that remain dormant in the soil for 15 to 20 years, activated by a chemical released when alliums (garlic, onions, and leeks) are planted. Garlic bloat nematode (a microscopic worm) is another disturbing pest that destroys the base where the roots join the cloves. Six River Farm had a small outbreak in 2011, after planting infested seed from Canada. Now the farm buys only certified seed tested for multiple pathogens. Sadly, Sideman says, the local enthusiasm for garlic growing, where seed was saved and swapped across the state, helped spread these diseases. Buyer beware. You can't automatically replant organic garlic from the farmers' market or your own saved cloves anymore. Most cloves are still okay to eat.