Growing Great Garlic
By: Robert Kourik
On a small farm at the edge of northern California's wine country, a robust and cheerful 75-year-old gardener named Chester Aaron lovingly cultivates an extraordinary collection of specialty garlics. Near the tiny town of Occidental (2 hours north of San Francisco), where coastal fogs moderate both summer and winter temperatures, Aaron raises and tends 81 named varieties of garlic, ranging from delicately flavored golden French varieties to hearty Russian strains with rich burgundy cloves.
A retired English professor and respected author, Aaron is a dedicated enthusiast of this ancient and aromatic herb. At an age when most people are slowing down, he happily toils over the cultivation, harvesting, and marketing of 12,000 heads of the world's finest and rarest garlics. His fragrant avocation has provided him with plenty of contact with other garlic enthusiasts, and lots of outdoor exercise, not to mention two bestselling books from Ten Speed Press, Garlic is Life (1996; $15) and The Great Garlic Book (1997; $15), and a poster (also from Ten Speed) with photographs of 40 varieties he grew.
Partly because of Aaron, gardeners today can chose between more than 300 different varieties of garlic, each distinct in some specific way: bigger or smaller, hotter or milder, pale white to glorious red, more or less pungent, more round or more elongated, more or fewer cloves, and on and on. The plant is, after all, thousands of years old and has moved with and adapted to pretty much wherever people have gone.
To talk about garlic flavor is like talking about the flavor of wine. The variations are sometimes major, sometimes extremely subtle, and often personal. Aaron's short list of favorites appears at the end of this article.
How Chester Aaron Grows Garlic
After more than a decade of planting and harvesting, Aaron has amassed a multitude of garlic-growing tricks. Here are his tips for growing, gathering, and curing any type of garlic in a typical home garden. Though flavor does vary from one variety of garlic to another, and the flavor of a variety often changes from region to region and season to season, the growing and harvesting methods apply almost universally.