If there’s just one thing you plant in your garden, make it garlic.
For one thing, it’s extraordinarily easy to grow. Plant it around Columbus Day. Cover it with mulch. Or don’t. Water it now and then when it starts growing again in the spring. And that’s about it.
You can start eating it at any stage, though obviously you don’t want to eat it all up before it develops heads. Thus, you need to plant a lot. You can chop the young shoots and add to a stir-fry. Pull the developing young heads and slice, using it for a mild flavoring. In early summer, if you’ve planted the stiff-neck varieties, the plants will form long thin necks, or scapes. While they’re still tender, cut them in manageable lengths and steam or sauté. They taste like mild asparagus.
But clearly your main quest is the mature heads. Once they’ve developed individual cloves, around mid-June, start using them the way you’re used to using garlic. Or separate the cloves, pull off the thin skin, and roast them on the grill, brushing on a little olive oil. Stiff-neck garlic is best for this, by the way, as the cloves are fewer and much bigger than the cloves of the soft-neck garlic, which is generally what you’ll find in the average grocery.
By the way, there are many arguments regarding the classification of garlic. For our purposes, weíll simply divide it into “stiff-neck” and “soft-neck.” Soft-neck garlic keeps a little longer. That’s why it’s grown commercially. Stiff-neck garlic has larger cloves, peels easier, and tastes better. In other words, yes, you need to grow your own. In lieu of this, however, many smaller market gardeners grow stiff-neck, so you should be able to find it at your farmer’s market or food coop.
The heads are mature by mid-July and should be harvested when most of the plant has turned brown. Tie them in a bunch and hang them in a shady spot. After they’ve dried for a few weeks, trim the dead stalk and excess roots and store in a net bag. Depending on the variety, the heads will keep until your next crop is ready.
Garlic is not a big crop in Washington, even though we were, a few years back at least, the fourth largest garlic grower in the country. Regardless of production level, Washington State University is a garlic mecca. Pullman is home to the Western Regional Plant Introduction System, part of the USDA’s National Plant Introduction System, which is responsible for seeking out and maintaining plant diversity.
Collectors for the system travel all over the world looking for new “accessions” of plants to add to the collection. Pullman is home to a number of collections, including beets, lettuces, beans, chives, leeks. And garlic. About 250 different accessions.
Garlic is propagated clonally, from vegetative tissue rather than true seed. Perhaps because it has been domesticated for so long, and because it grows so well and conveniently from individual cloves, it has not been selected for its ability to set true seed. And doesn’t. What that means in the short term is that it must be grown out every year in order to preserve its germplasm, the clove.
Barbara Helliers is the caretaker, or curator, for the garlic collection, as well as several others. Last year she traveled to Uzbekistan to collect new accessions of wild carrots and alliums, the family to which garlic belongs. She and fellow collectors found six new accessions of garlic, as well as 10 other alliums. Again because garlic has been domesticated for so long, it is hard, says Helliers, to tell whether a line of garlic is wild or not. For all we know, Uzbeki garlic may have descended from a clove dropped from a caravan pack three thousand years ago.
As I mentioned earlier, Helliers maintains about 250 different lines of garlic. Garlic varies wildly in appearance, ranging from small-headed squat plants to softball-sized heads with scapes reaching four feet high. They also vary wonderfully in pungency and taste.
To every garlic head’s interest, however, the genetic diversity of that collection has recently been called into question. Gayle Volk, who earned her doctorate in botany from WSU a couple of years ago, now works for the Plant Introduction System in Fort Collins, Colorado. She is the lead author of a recently published paper reporting on genetic analysis she and her colleagues performed on 211 lines of garlic, from our collection as well as commercial varieties. They found that many of those lines are genetic duplicates. In fact, they found that 64 percent of the Pullman accessions are, technically, duplicates. In spite of this, Helliers has no plan to eliminate those duplicates from the collection. She bases her approach on the 1-percent probability difference that remains. That difference may be small, but it may mean all the difference in the adaptability of a line.
Even within a particular line of garlic, two genetically identical plants can look, taste, and grow very differently, due to garlic’s enormous “phenotypic plasticity.” What this means is that within the range of its genetic identity, it has great flexibility, one line responding much differently to varying climates and soil types. In other words, garlic, like wine, depends on its terroir.