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Garden Guru: Garlic is not just for repelling vampires

By John Porter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's that time for goblins and ghouls, witches and warlocks, and zombies and vampires to invade our streets and homes. If you have watched horror movies, you know that you'll need to stock up on wooden stakes, holy water, silver bullets and garlic to protect yourself from harm.

But when you pick up that garlic, I would suggest that you plant it instead of using it to repel vampires. After all, despite what the big box stores might tell you, it is the right time of year to plant garlic!

The lore of garlic to ward off evil spirits is ancient. Some think the legend is rooted in the use of garlic to repel all kinds of foul things, from rabid animals to mosquitoes. These days, garlic is praised more for its culinary uses and possible curative effects against infections and even cholesterol. The main benefit to eating garlic, however, is the taste, especially if the garlic is homegrown. So, let's talk a bit about growing garlic, what garlic to grow, and how garlic can be used.

Picking the right type

When I talk about growing garlic, I usually get the question about growing the garlic you buy in the grocery store. My answer is generally a "yes, of course, but ..." type of answer. Garlic found in the produce section doesn't taste nearly as good as garlic available elsewhere. Just like the cardboard tomatoes you buy in winter, grocery-store garlic is selected for its storage potential rather than flavor.

Grocery-store garlic is a soft-neck variety, which is good for braiding and hanging on the kitchen wall, but it has a hot, pungent flavor that is less complex than other garlics. The garlics that grow best in moderate and cooler climates are the hard-neck varieties. Unfortunately, this often means you have to order garlic from a catalog retailer to get a good start (exchanging with friends and fellow gardeners is a good way to grow a collection too). Some catalogs I like for garlic are Territorial Seed, Seed Savers Exchange, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Burpee's.

There are several different types of garlic that originate in different geographic areas. Each has its own specific growing habits and flavor profiles. Some common types you'll find in area gardens are:

Porcelain -- prized for very large bulbs with a mild, yet well-developed garlic flavor.

Rocambole -- the most complex of all garlic flavors, this garlic loves cold weather.

Purple Stripe -- has a very strong garlic flavor and can be harvested earlier than other garlics.

Turban -- a flavorful and fiery garlic. This is the garlic flavor found in spicy Asian cuisines.

Artichoke and Silverskin -- these are the soft-neck varieties that are commonly found in grocery stores.

Planting

The hardest part about planting garlic is making sure your soil is prepared. Garlic likes a well-drained soil high in organic matter. It prefers a pH in the range of 6 to 7, so I would definitely recommend getting a soil test. Garlic is a heavy feeder, so a balanced fertilizer (organic or conventional) is a must. It also enjoys nitrogen; planting it after removing nitrogen-fixing beans or peas from the garden, applying nitrogen fertilizer or a high-nitrogen composted manure (like poultry manure) will ensure that you get the most from your garlic harvest.

To plant the garlic, separate all of the cloves from the bulb, making sure to not break the skin covering it or removing the hard, flat plate at the bottom of the clove. Plant each clove about 6 inches apart and just deep enough to cover the tip (and remember to plant the pointy end up). You'll want to cover the garlic with a mulch of straw, shredded leaves or shredded newspaper and then leave it alone over the winter. You can side dress with extra nitrogen fertilizer in the spring if you think it needs it. Your garlic will be ready to harvest when the leaves begin to die back, usually in mid-July.

Once you harvest your garlic, let it cure for about four weeks before storing it. Cure garlic by tying the plants together in bundles and hanging them in a warm, dry location such as a storage building (you can hang it in your attic, but family and guests may not appreciate garlic-scented air fresheners). Select a few large, healthy bulbs to use as your "seed" for next year; otherwise you'll have to buy garlic every year.

You don't have to wait for the bulbs to form to enjoy garlic. First off, the turban-type garlics actually mature in mid-May, so if they are in your collection, you'll have early garlic to enjoy.

The hard-neck varieties of garlic also produce scapes (flower stalks). These scapes, once they start to curl, can be harvested and cooked just like other vegetables or used as a flavoring like garlic. Small cloves of garlic also can be planted and harvested as green garlic, which resembles scallions (green onions). Both of these make a fine spring vegetable.

And remember, even though there might not be vampires to repel, if you eat too much garlic, you'll want to use a breath mint so you don't find yourself repelling everyone.

John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.


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