By Health Coach Deborah Cox FMCHC, NBHWC
The word garlic comes from the Old English word garleac meaning “spear leek”. Garlic’s origin is Western and Central Asia, where it flourishes in the wild. The progenitor of modern garlic, Allium sativum, most believe is Allium longicuspis, yet a few believe it could be A. tuncelianum, or A. macrochaetum. Garlic has a truly diverse history from being worshiped and used as an offering to ancient gods to being rejected so much that its only usefulness was hog feed. Throughout time, garlic has been used as food, money, medicine, an aphrodisiac, and an ingredient of potions of all sorts. It may be the earliest documented plant to be used for the maintenance of health and treating disease, some of the earliest references of its use date back 5000 years or more.
In ancient Egypt, garlic was used as a staple in the diet of the workers building the pyramids as it was thought to strengthen them so they could work harder and be more productive. Cloves of garlic were found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb when it was excavated in 1922. In ancient Greece and Rome, garlic was thought to promote strength, work capacity, and endurance. In these cultures it was fed to soldiers especially when they were headed off to battle. Garlic was always part of the manifest on Roman ships when they set out to sea. There is also evidence that garlic was fed to athletes in Greece during the first Olympics, so the idea of using “performance-enhancing” agents may have its roots quite early in competitive sports.
Most cultures, from the first recorded uses, used garlic for medicinal purposes, ranging from treating sadness and depression, growths (cancers), pulmonary issues, issues of the arteries, plague, digestive issues, animal bites, leprosy, and so many more ailments. It was thought of as an inexpensive “cure-all” by many. Garlic was also used in folklore as protection against evil spirits, werewolves, and vampires. Probably most well-documented and studied today are the antimicrobial effects of garlic. It has been used for treating wounds as far back as Hippocrates and was known as “Russian penicillin” during WWII when it was used to treat wound infections when antibiotics ran out. It had also been used in WWI for wounds and dysentery. Albert Schweitzer used garlic in Africa to cure typhoid fever and cholera in the mid-20th century.
Throughout history, garlic has not always found favor as a food. Its strong, pungent flavor and the after-effects of eating it, gas, burping, and bad breath, left it out of most upper-class meals, although they were not against it for its healing properties. Garlic was typically considered a food for the laborers and working classes. Egyptian priests would worship garlic but never cook it or eat it. In early Greek religious culture, if you wanted to enter the temple of Cybele, you had to pass a garlic breath test before you were allowed to enter. In England “garlic breath was deemed entirely unsuitable for refined young ladies and the gentlemen who wished to court them”.
The French, Spanish, and Portuguese settlers brought garlic to the Americas. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that America began to embrace garlic for its use as a seasoning and as a major ingredient in recipes. It had been frowned upon by foodie snobs, as it was in England, because it was typically only found in ethnic foods and working-class neighborhoods. Consumption of garlic has tripled since the 1990’s. Today, Americans consume more than 250 million pounds of garlic a year.
Garlic is pretty easy to grow, even in my colder high-altitude garden. All it really needs is good rich soil - it loves nitrogen - that is well drained and well worked. It has a hard time in heavy, clay-type soils. Raised beds and containers are great. Garlic enjoys full sun. Add a little compost and work it into the soil before planting. More may be added as a side dressing in the Spring.
If you live in the north, garlic is usually planted from October through November, two to four weeks before the first hard frost. Here in northern Nevada, I like to get it in the ground in mid-October but have planted as late as the first of December with good results. Give the bulbs enough time to establish a good root system before the ground freezes. In southern areas, garlic can be planted November through January, depending on your local weather. Break the bulbs apart into individual cloves, planting the biggest, healthiest cloves, and, of course, don’t waste the smaller ones…save them for dinner! Plant each clove about 2 inches deep, 6-9 inches apart. I plant in rows 6 inches apart and stagger the placement of the cloves. My beds are 4 feet by 10 feet, and I can plant approximately 120 cloves in a bed, which gives my husband and me enough to eat and plenty for replanting the next fall. Mulch your garlic after planting, and then the mulch may be removed in the spring after the threat of frost is past. I have mulched with leaves, straw, and a more woody-type of mulch probably meant for flower beds and landscaping more than for garlic, all with good results. I have also bypassed mulching entirely without detriment to my plants.
I am not a stickler on watering my garlic, I will water it in the Fall about once a week depending on rain, we don’t get much here. When winter hits I pretty much ignore it until spring; then I begin watering once a week until I get my driplines hooked back up and then they are on a normal every other day watering. I do taper the watering off when the leaves begin to dry, and I turn the water off a week or two before harvest, depending on the weather. Your watering may be different according to your climate and rain patterns. Some people rarely water their garlic and have great harvests.
The worst enemy of garlic is weeds. Keep your garlic as weed free as possible, and take care when removing weeds that spring up close to the plants; you don’t want to disturb the growing bulb or accidentally pull it up with a weed. I have also learned that gophers do like garlic, so monitor your bed if they are a pest in your area.
There are different approaches to determining the time to harvest garlic - how many bottom leaves have turned brown (dried); how many top leaves are still green; or have they fallen over. I have never mastered how many leaves should be what color as an indicator of time to harvest. I dig up one plant to see if the cloves have filled the skins and are not splitting apart, as you do not want them to dry out in the ground, to determine if it is harvest time. When you have determined that your garlic is ready, gently dig them, don’t pull them by the top unless you have really light soil, and dust the excess dirt off, being careful not to remove the wrapping or damage the bulbs. Hang them in small bundles in a shaded, well-ventilated place to cure. Curing takes 1-4 weeks depending on your climate, I have been able to successfully cure garlic here in Nevada in 1 week in the years that have been especially dry and breezy. You do not have to wait for your garlic to cure before using it, although the flavor will be enhanced during the curing process.
Garlic is ready to store when the wrappers are dry like tissue paper. Extremely dirty outer wrappers may be removed. At this time, you want to cut back the roots and remove the tops to about a half inch. The tops of softneck varieties may be braided together for storage. Do not store garlic in the refrigerator as it will quickly begin to sprout. Store garlic in a dark, cool place, with optimal temps being 45-55° F and humidity 50-70% to slow dehydration.
There are two types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. Hardneck varieties have a hard center stalk that produces a scape. To get the biggest bulb production cut the scapes back as they begin to curl; they can be used in salads, stir-fries, and other recipes you use garlic in. Hardnecks can be a little more finicky about soil composition. They do not have a long storage life, yet they do have wonderfully large, tasty cloves. Softneck varieties don’t usually have a scape, are a little hardier and less fussy, store a lot longer, and have smaller, more numerous cloves, making them a little harder to work with in the kitchen. Elephant garlic is actually a variety of leek and its flavor is more onion-like than garlicky.
Source your garlic from reputable growers. If you are new to growing garlic, try a range of varieties to determine which ones do well in your area and which ones you enjoy eating and cooking with. Be creative and have fun with them.
Here are a few places I have sourced my garlic from in the past. The garlic I am growing now came from Filaree Farm in Omak, WA. The varieties I am growing are Basque, Georgian Fire, and Nootka Rose.
Ready to start cooking? See the Horse Lover's Kitchen and try your hand at these dill carrots, steamed asparagus and braised lamb shank (with some garlic of course!) recipes.
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