Whether you prefer softneck or hardneck, the time to plant is now.
GARLIC LONG HAS been one of the most popular herbs. As far back as 2000 B.C., garlic was used as a remedy for 22 health problems, including headaches, worms, tumors, pimples and heart ailments. Modern-day studies have found that it boosts the immune system, lowers cholesterol and helps fight cancer. According to Greek mythology, eating garlic even saved Odysseus from being turned into a pig. It’s hard to say whether all the claims are true, but one thing’s for sure: It tastes great in all sorts of cooking.
In the past, homeowners have grown mostly softneck varieties. These days, however, according to Jim Fox, garlic expert and bulb buyer at Wells Medina Nursery, more and more garlic connoisseurs are experimenting with growing hardneck varieties. It’s true they won’t store as long as softneck varieties, and they can’t be braided, but garlic lovers are growing them because they offer richer, complex flavors.
Some of Fox’s favorites include ‘Asian Tempest’ from Korea, offering a strong, sweet flavor when baked; ‘Chesnok Red’ from the Republic of Georgia, renowned for holding its shape and flavor after cooking; and, from Portugal, ‘Early Portuguese’, sweet with only a hint of heat, making it a good choice for eating raw.
Most hardneck garlic produces noticeable warmth when eaten cooked, but is much hotter raw. One of the hottest is ‘Thai Fire’. When cooked, the flavor is described as complex, with a steadily rising heat level. But raw, it’s said to be hot enough to burn the geezer hair right out of your ears.
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October is the best time to plant garlic in the Puget Sound area. Purchase garlic cloves for planting from nurseries or mail-order catalogs. Store-bought garlic is fine to eat but could infect the soil with a fungus disease and make it impossible to grow garlic or any member of the onion family for years.
Plant the individual cloves, chubby side down, 2 inches deep in a sunny location, in well-drained, compost-amended soil. Starting in March, keep the soil slightly moist, and side dress every three to four weeks with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer such as blood- or fish-meal. Around mid-May, leaf growth ceases, and bulbing begins. Stop fertilizing, and reduce the frequency of watering to about once per week. Cut off any flowering stems (they’re great in stir fries or in flower arrangements) to prevent them from stealing energy from the forming bulb.
As the bulb increases in size, individual leaves will begin to die, transferring their energy to the bulb. Each leaf is associated with one layer of the protective papery wrapper surrounding the underground bulb. With each leaf that dies on the aboveground stem, one protective layer disintegrates. The trick is to allow the bulb to develop maximum size, but harvest before the protective wrap becomes too thin. It’s usually time to harvest when three or four of the leaves remain on the stem. If you wait to harvest until there’s only one or two leaves left, the covering might get too fine to prevent soil from getting in between the cloves, making it hard to store and clean for cooking.
When harvesting, if you have sandy soil, carefully pull the bulbs up by the neck. If they won’t come easily, pry them out from below, using a digging fork. Be careful not to bruise them, as that will significantly diminish storage time.
After harvest, cure the bulbs by drying them on a screen, or hang them in bunches in a moisture-free, well-ventilated, shady area for about two weeks. After that, you can braid softneck garlic into bundles. In the case of hardneck garlic, remove the stems and hang in mesh bags in a dry location at room temperature.
Softneck garlic can be stored for up to six to eight months; hardneck usually stores for only about four months.
Then eat lots of garlic. You’ll live a long life, and you won’t have to worry about anyone turning you into a pig!