By Sara Malone, Master Gardener
Garlic, or Allium sativum, is native to Central Asia and has long been a staple of many of the world's cuisines. It is a close relative of onions, shallots and leeks. Garlic is flavorful, inexpensive and lasts for months if stored properly. It is also said to bring good luck and ward off vampires, but this is a scientific site so we will focus on its horticultural and culinary properties.
Garlic is easily grown in Sonoma County. One of the attractive aspects of adding it to your vegetable garden is that it occupies bed space from October to May, making room at exactly the right time for the Summer vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers that go into the garden in the late Spring. What else would you do with your beds during the Winter that is as easy and as productive as planting garlic?
There are two main types of garlic: soft neck and hard neck. The hard neck have fewer, larger cloves and have a moderately long shelf life. The soft neck have more, smaller cloves and generally have the longest shelf life (in some cases up to 9-10 months). Soft necks are easier to grow and tolerate warmer temperatures and more climatic variability. I have successfully—and easily—grown soft neck garlic in Petaluma, and plan to try hard neck this year just to see the difference. There is debate about whether one or the other has better—or more pungent—taste, but I confess that I do not find them all that different. The hard neck is definitely easier to peel, but I prefer the longer shelf life of the soft neck.
Garlic is prolific—bulbs yield 5-8 times their weight in harvest. Because it is easy to grow here in Sonoma County, your success rate will likely be high so plant accordingly. You do not need to devote a lot of garden real estate to produce all the garlic that you can use.
To plant garlic all that you need to do is to take apart a bulb and plant each clove separately, about 6 inches apart, in a well-prepared bed with plenty of organic matter worked into the soil ahead of time. You could plant a bulb from the store, but to ensure that you are planting a flavorful variety and a bulb that has been stored correctly, you are better off buying garlic specifically for planting. A large selection of garlic varieties are described in online seed catalogs. A comprehensive list of sources can be found in the Master Gardener Food Gardening Specialist publication, “Vegetable Seed Sources.” Also, check out your local nurseries.
Mulch your bed well (I use alfalfa hay to mulch my vegetables—readily available at any feed store, cheap and easy to use, and has no seeds it in) and watch for the garlic to sprout and produce tops that look very similar to onions. You may cover your garlic bed with remay or some other crop covering material if you wish—I have not done so as the tops are strong enough to withstand the hardest rains, and the extremely cold weather last winter in Sonoma County didn't bother my soft neck garlic a bit.
Garlic is ready to harvest when the tops turn yellow and begin to fall over. Brush the dirt off, put it out in a shady place to dry for a week or two, and then cut off the tops and roots and peel off the very outer layer of skin and you will have pristine, gorgeous garlic that is more robust looking and fragrant than anything that you have ever purchased. If you think that you can use all of it before it goes bad (length of time depends on which variety you planted), then store it inside in the coolest, darkest place that you can find—a basement or interior closet with a stone floor, or a root cellar if you are lucky enough to have one. If you don't think that you can use it all, it makes great gifts—I ended up with about 100 plants the first time that I planted garlic, as I had virtually a 100% success rate. Thus, I gave garlic to anyone I could, and they all loved it and many came back asking for more. It makes even the freshest purchased garlic seem dry and bitter.
For recipes for garlic go to any cookbook or cooking website. And to hedge your bets, hang a little bit in your kitchen just in case it really does bring good luck and wards off vampires.