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Growing garlic: Well worth the long wait

“And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath.”

— William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 4, Scene 2

Shakespeare knew that his audiences were very familiar with the pungent aroma and taste of onions and garlic because these cousins within the Allium genus were both widely grown in gardens during the Elizabethan era. They were important ingredients in vegetable pottages eaten by the common folk, as well as in fancy sauces for meat dishes enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth I and her court.

Garlic (Allium sativum) continues to be one of the mostly commonly grown herbs in the home garden, although it’s certainly the slowest to mature at 220 to 300 days after planting (that’s 8 to 10 months!). Yet garlic makes up for its pokiness by being an easy crop to grow. Local gardeners who otherwise take a break during the winter will plant garlic in the fall just to keep their “growing going” all year.

The 15-day forecast for our area indicates we’ve still got a few weeks left to plant garlic, so get your garlic growing before rain and frost settle in to make soil conditions unfavorable.

First, decide what kind of garlic you want to grow. Soft-necked varieties are the kind usually available in grocery stores. They don’t grow rigid stems, called scapes; therefore, soft-necked garlic plants are not as striking in the garden as hard-necked types, but they are the best kind for braiding.

Soft-necked garlic varieties typically contain several small cloves per bulb. Their flavor is usually milder than hard-necked types; also, soft-necked garlic tends to store better. The OSU Extension Service recommends the following soft-necked cultivars for growing in the Rogue Valley: Inchelium Red, Italian Late, Oregon Blue and Silver Rose.

Hard-necked garlic varieties are called top setters because they produce tall scapes, some with exotic loops, where the flowers form. Gourmet chefs usually prefer hard-necked garlic because the flavors are more distinctive. The cloves are also larger and easier to peel, but hard-necked garlic has a shorter shelf life.

There are several subtypes of hard-necked garlic. For our area, the OSU Extension Service recommends growing these hard-necked cultivars: Chesnok Red (a purple-striped variety), Spanish Roja (a racambole variety), Georgian Crystal (a porcelain variety) and Korean Red (an Asiatic variety). Another popular cultivar is Music, a porcelain variety that is particularly winter-hardy with a longer-than-usual storage life.

An added bonus of growing hard-necked garlic is that the scapes can be harvested when young and tender for salads and stir-fry dishes. Cut the scape gently so the bulb developing underground is not disturbed.

Once you decide what kind of garlic to grow (and why not grow soft-necked and hard-necked types?), the next step is to weed the garden bed and prepare well-draining soil (pH 6.0-7.0) by loosening the top 6 inches with a garden fork and mixing compost and a tablespoon of bone meal into each planting hole. Bone meal is high in phosphorous, which helps support root growth.

Separate the garlic cloves right before planting, and select the largest, healthiest-looking seed cloves to plant. The larger the cloves, the bigger the garlic bulb you will harvest next summer. Plant the cloves pointy side up so they are about 2-3 inches below the top of the soil. Space them 3-4 inches apart in rows that are about 8 inches apart. Keep the soil moist until fall and winter rains take over.

Once freezing temperatures arrive, mulch around the garlic with leaves or straw and keep an eye out for weeds and over-wintering, opportunistic pests. In the spring, use slow-releasing, NPK-balanced fertilizers to support development of the garlic shoots, roots and bulb.

When the lower leaves start to turn brown, take a garden fork and dig up, rather than pull, a few garlic bulbs to test. If the cloves fill out the bulb skin, they are finally ready to harvest. Allow harvested bulbs to cure by brushing off the dirt (but don’t wash) and leaving the stalks and roots on the bulbs while they dry for 3 to 4 weeks in a well-ventilated room out of direct sunlight. Store garlic in a cool, dark area with air circulation. Soft-necked garlic stores for 6-8 months, while most hard-necked varieties will keep for 2-3 months before turning soft or sprouting.

Shakespeare’s quote about garlic is spoken by a character who has waited during much of the play for his chance to entertain the Duke of Athens and his bride. It’s a fitting plot for an herb that makes us wait so long to enjoy, but at least in garlic’s case, the long wait is worth it.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

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