By Matt Peters
The gardener’s yearly cycle of labors typically ends with planting garlic. Garlic in our northern latitudes is planted in the fall, and harvested in mid-July.
How to plant and harvest garlic
Garlic is grown by simply planting the individual cloves that one might otherwise peel and eat. Plant each clove deep, more than an inch beneath the soil surface, and mulch with a deep layer of straw (not hay!) to protect the developing plant from winter’s cold. Garlic can be grown quite close together, I like to space mine about four inches apart, allowing enough room for the bulbs to develop.
This year, the Hazelwood Urban Ag Team hosted a garlic-planting party on Sunday, October 17. Grow Pittsburgh generously provided two pounds of seed garlic for our community garden at the former YMCA.
The underground bulb is the part of the plant we are most familiar with, but Garlic produces a second vegetable in June, with the edible flower stems or scapes which give a milder, fresher or “greener” garlic flavor. Almost every part of the garlic plant is edible, except the paper sheathing of the mature cloves and the basal cluster of fine rootlets.
Garlic, an ancient and beloved ingredient
Garlic has been grown since ancient times, with cuneiform tablets from the Sumerian documenting its production some 4,000 years ago. Garlic was found preserved in Tutankhamen’s tomb (circa 1325 BCE) and was grown in ancient China. Garlic is mentioned in Chinese documents dating to 2000 BCE, and today China is the main producer of nearly 80% of the world’s garlic supply. Much of China’s exported garlic is treated with chemicals to prevent sprouting, so planting store-bought garlic may yield disappointing results. Garlic from your farmers’ markets or other locally-grown sources will be more successful.
Garlic is so ancient its origins are lost in the mists of time, but it appears to have originated from a wild progenitor native to the Middle East or southwest Asia. It features prominently in global mythology and folklore, with its vampire-repellant properties fairly well-known even among modern-day Americans. The origin story of Korea features a tale about a bear transformed into a woman after 100 days of eating garlic and mugwort. Garlic is one of the essential items in a traditional Persian New-Year’s table display, called Haft-Sin (“seven things that begin with the letter S”).
Probably healthy, definitely delicious
Garlic’s healthful properties are no myth, however, with clinical studies showing a small but measurable drop in blood pressure after eating garlic, and some indications that garlic may reduce some cancers of the upper digestive tract. While these studies are inconclusive or limited by confounding factors and sometimes even bias on the part of the researchers themselves, Garlic’s time-honored place in culinary medicine remains firm. However, garlic interacts with some medications that treat blood coagulation, such as Warfarin, as well as other medications and some antibiotics.
Garlic holds a central, almost sacred place in many kitchens, and no garden would be complete without it.