University City

Planting garlic: a new October tradition

With Halloween just around the corner, mid-October is the ideal time to plant the vampires' bane and foodies' delight: garlic.

Homegrown garlic boasts advantages over the store-bought kind. These days, the latter increasingly comes from China, like everything else from flip-flop sandals to smart phones. But you can't beat the taste of fresh garlic, and University City gardeners can grow gourmet varieties rarely found in the supermarket.

Garlic doesn't require much space to grow, either. A 4-by-4-foot garden bed provides plenty for a small family, unless an unusually large number of vampires or foodies shows up.

Jeanine Davis, horticulture specialist with the N.C. Cooperative Extension, says garlic comes in two main types: softneck and hardneck.

Softneck is the familiar supermarket garlic, with consistent taste and good keeping qualities. Hardnecks, the gourmet types sold mostly at farmers' markets, come in many varieties and produce oddly curled, edible flower stalks, or "scapes," in late spring.

Scapes look strange and taste delicious, with a mild garlicky flavor.

N.C. Farm Bureau Magazine recently called the state a hotbed for growing garlic: "Warm fall weather followed by a mild cold period and then the long days and warm temperatures of springtime are exactly what garlic needs."

That may be true, but it is a fresh realization.

Natalie Foster of Cornerstone Garlic Farm in Rockingham remembers when she first wanted to try garlic as a crop, a little more than a decade ago.

"When we were getting started, nobody in North Carolina was growing garlic, and the people at agriculture extension said they couldn't help us. So we started learning on our own. Now they ask us to help them!"

Foster said the trick to success in growing garlic in the Piedmont is finding a variety of garlic - softneck or hardneck, it doesn't matter - that harvests early, by May or June.

"If it gets too hot - above 90 degrees - the garlic just stops," she said.

"With our unpredictable weather, that means you need a garlic that matures quickly."

Foster has had success with the hardneck variety "Music," "Turban" types, softnecks such as "Inchelium," "New York White" and "Kettle River Giant," and also with elephant garlic.

Elephant garlic - botanically a leek - forms mild-tasting bulbs that are four times bigger than regular garlic.

Barbara Pleasant of Mother Earth News, a top authority on Southern vegetable gardening, also grows "Music" in her garlic patch, along with the "Spanish Roja" and "Korean Red" varieties.

Like flowering bulbs such as daffodils, October-planted garlic grows a strong root system during our mild autumn, so it is ready to grow rapidly in the spring.

Garlic also needs a couple of months of cold weather to trigger bulb formation.

Since garlic grows best in fertile soil, dig in an inch or two of good compost before planting. Consider adding an organic fertilizer, such as Espoma Garden-Tone, at recommended rates. Steve Gilman of Fine Gardening Magazine suggests using soybean meal, at one pound for a 4-by-4-foot area.

Separate your garlic bulbs into individual cloves, then plant each one with the pointy end up, an inch or two deep, spaced 2 to 6 inches apart.

Like most herbs and edible plants, garlic can be grown in containers, though growing directly in garden soil is easier and usually more productive. If you grow it in a container, use as large a container as you can, and don't plant more than a single clove per square foot of surface area.

If you plant garlic directly in your garden, be sure to move the location each year. Garlic is subject to diseases that build up in the soil, so rotation is a must.

If you grow a hardneck variety such as "Music," you'll be treated to scapes in the spring, weeks before the bulbs are ready. Long a part of Asian cooking, scapes excel in sautés and stir-fries, work well baked or roasted and can even be used raw like chives.

It is easy to find bulbs for softneck garlic at local hardware stores and garden centers this time of year.

You can also plant garlic from the grocery store, but be careful to buy only organic bulbs, since conventional ones are sometimes sprayed with a chemical to keep them from sprouting.

For more interesting hardneck varieties, online vendors are a good option. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, www.southernexposure.com, has a decent garlic selection.

Farmers' markets that emphasize local foods are also good places to check. Cornerstone Garlic Farm (email cornerstonegarlicfarm@gmail.com) is sold out of garlic for planting for this year, except for bulbs they set aside to sell at markets and local festivals.

Like farmer Natalie Foster, you may need to experiment a bit with growing garlic. But that's what local food is all about: figuring out how we can successfully grow what we like to eat, right here at home in University City.

Who knows? Maybe garlic planting can become an October tradition, like jack-o-lanterns and trick-or-treating, no matter what the vampires think.

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