NGA Articles: A Passion For Garlic

A Passion For Garlic

By: Vicky Congdon

I didn't grow my own garlic until I started sharing a garden with an Italian. But when you succession-plant Florence fennel the way most people plant lettuce and drive the 2-1/2 hours to Montreal because only Reggiano parmesan for pesto will do, suddenly the store-bought stuff just doesn't cut it. One season and my enthusiasm became an obsession. Even my gardening partner, Mica, is looking askance at the way the garlic plot increases each year, with more colors, flavors and types.

For those who relish its robust flavor, garlic has a mystique. Few other crops have such lore — from impressive health benefits to vampire-repelling qualities — surrounding them. As I talked to market growers and Allium experts around the country, I quickly realized they were under its spell, too.

One such garlic guru is Ron Engeland, author of Growing Great Garlic, a comprehensive guide for home and market gardeners. He raises 350 strains of garlic organically at Filaree Farm in north central Washington state, more than 100 of which are available through their mail-order catalog. In the mid-1970s, Engeland worked with garlic as part of local gardening project. "I just fell in love with it," he says.

Engeland is anxious for gardeners to realize the wide range of garlics they can grow. Perhaps you're intrigued with the geographic origins and like the idea of growing a strain that was purchased by an Allium collector in a bazaar in central Asia. Or you may be captivated by the variations in flavor, which go beyond "hot" and "mild" with descriptions such as those for Brown Tempest ("initial fiery taste that mellows to a pleasing garlicky finish"), Susanville ("mellow with a slight bite ... almost delicate and sweet") or Russian Redstreak ("initial sharp taste in front and roof of mouth as flavor builds").

The Wide World of Garlic

The generic white bulbs you see in the grocery store are only the tip of the iceberg. Garlic has traditionally been divided into two groups: hardneck and softneck. The hardnecks are believed to have descended directly from wild garlic, which evolved into a domesticated food crop in the "garlic crescent" of eastern Europe and central and eastern Asia. These garlics still produce a flower stalk but rather than bearing fertile flowers, the stalk ends in an aboveground capsule containing small cloves or bulbils.

The more domesticated softnecks have, for the most part, lost the ability to produce this woody flower stalk. Having been selected over thousands of years for higher productivity, wider adaptability and better storage qualities, it's easy to see why they have become the mass-produced garlics of the retail and processing markets.

In 1991, Ron Engeland began describing five types of garlic. Genetic research by Dr. Phil Simon of the University of Wisconsin in 1993 tentatively confirmed this classification. Engeland has since further subdivided his system.

Although locally grown garlic is always a sure bet, don't be afraid to experiment a bit. Just be patient. "Garlic can learn," Engeland explains. "If a nonlocal variety doesn't do too well the first year, that doesn't mean it won't do really well the following year, so save some cloves to plant." He continues to find local strains that have adapted to conditions different from what you would expect of their varietal type.


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