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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Garlic: One of the basic food groups.

     In my world, garlic is one of the basic food groups (along with dark chocolate, of course.)   Some people are surprised to learn that garlic grows great in our Colorado climate.  And with the gourmet varieties that Tagawa Gardens sells every fall, you'll be amazed at how much better home-grown garlic tastes than the more bland one-size-fits-all garlic you can buy in the grocery store.

     Just listen to some of the exotic names of the garlic you'll find at Tagawa's:  "Porcelain," "Purple Stripes," "Rocambole" and "Chet's Italian Red."  

     Garlic planted in the fall (October is ideal), will begin to develop roots before the ground freezes, and be ready to take off come spring. 

     There are two strains of garlic, "hardneck" and "softneck."    Don't worry too much about the technicalities.  Just remember that the hardneck varieties are known for their superior flavor, but don't store as long at the softnecks.  And if you're crafty and want to braid your havested garlic, you'll want to make sure you plant the softneck varieties.  Both strains like the same growing conditions.

     Garlic is a little fussy about the soil it grows in.  Our heavy Colorado clay needs to be amended with compost or peat moss to provide a deep, well-drained bed.  The cloves could rot in a soil that stays soggy.  The looser your soil is, the larger the bulbs will
      Once you have your garlic bulbs in hand, don't separate them into individual cloves until you're ready to plant.  That will help to keep them from drying out.  . 

     Planting the largest cloves will give you larger bulbs when you harvest next summer.  Each clove needs to be planted with the pointy end up and the blunt side down.  But it's time for a confession.  For some unknowm reason, one year I planted all of my garlic upside-down.  Go figure.  The garlic still grew just fine. The stem made an underground U-turn and headed for the sunlight, but it's not a planting technique I recommend.

     Once you've amended your soil until it's fairly loose and light, the individual cloves can easily just be pushed into place.  The cloves should be planted about three inches deep and at least four inches apart.    Kris, Tagawa's garlic and herb expert, recommends
adding a little 5-10-10 fertilizer as you plant each clove. 
     Don't worry if your garlic begins to send up green top growth before winter sets in.  Snow and freezing temperatures won't damage the plants.

     Garlic doesn't compete well with weeds.  A layer of loose mulch that won't pack down will help keep the weeds at bay and keep soil moisture more even.
Several inches of straw or shredded leaves would work well.   If we have a dry winter,  it's worth your time to drag out the hose every four to six weeks hose and give your garlic a good drink.
     Once warm spring weather arrives, your garlic will take off.  The hardneck varieties will send up what's called a "scape," basically a garlic flower.  It's best to remove the scape so all of the plant's energy goes toward making a nice, plump bulb.

     I think harvesting garlic is great fun.  Once you see the foliage begin to dry out in mid-summer, back off of the watering.  The garlic is ready to harvest when half of the top growth has dried out. 

     A garden fork is better than a shovel for gently lifting the bulbs out of the ground.   Don't cut the bulbs from their leaves.  Gather the bulbs in bundles of five to ten plants and hang them upside down in an airy place out of direct sunlight.  The bulbs will store better if they're allowed to cure for three to four weeks.

     Once the garlic has thoroughly cured, cut off the top growth about half an inch above the neck of the bulb.   Trim the roots and scuff off any dried soil.  The garlic will keep best in something like a netted onion bag in a well-vented area that stays cool, but not cold.  Never store your garlic in a refrigerator.  It will think its going through winter and begin to sprout.

      There are dozens of ways to use your home-grown garlic.  Oven-roasted garlic and a loaf of fresh bread is pretty hard to beat. 

      You might want to plant more garlic than you really think you need.  Once your friends know you have home-grown gourmet garlic, expect them to be knocking at your door.