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Glorious Garlic

Easy to grow, but not foolproof

One of the smallest and nicest farm stands in Eugene can be found in the courtyard of the Excelsior Inn on 13th Avenue. It is operated each Friday, July through October, by Angela Andre, manager of Excelsior Farm. When Andre’s garlic caught my eye, it was the first I’d heard of Excelsior Farm. In the fall of 2009, the owner of the Excelsior Inn and Restorante, Maurizio Paparo, turned a 5-acre pasture on his property into a farm to supply the restaurant with fresh organic eggs and produce. He hired Andre, a veteran organic farmer, to set up and manage the farm. By summer 2011 they were producing enough to supply the farm stand and to offer CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares. 

Since the farm got started in fall, one of the first things Andre planted was garlic. How appropriate for an Italian-inflected restaurant, and what glorious, succulent garlic Andre grows! Since I am just beginning to grow garlic, I asked her to tell me something about her methods. It seems that garlic is pretty easy to grow and not much bothered by disease, but it isn’t foolproof. A prolonged, hard freeze can kill garlic. The commonest problem, though, is mold, caused by too much moisture retention around the bulb. The cold, wet spring of 2011 destroyed a lot of garlic in the Willamette Valley. 

The best insurance against rot is to grow garlic in loose soil in raised beds. Andre’s soil is a good sandy loam, which she forms into raised rows with a small, custom built hiller. She plants garlic from mid- to late-September through the middle of October. “You want to get it in before it rains,” she says. The most important amendment for garlic, Andre told me, is phosphate-rich bonemeal, which is worked into the soil before planting (Andre uses a custom mix of blood meal, bone meal and kelp). Individual cloves of garlic are planted 8-12 inches apart. Once the garlic sprouts, and before any freezing weather, she mulches with used horse bedding (coarse sawdust with roughly 1 percent manure) and she’ll give the garlic a foliar feed when it shoots up in spring. 

I grew a little garlic myself last year, mainly for a spring supply of young “green” garlic, which is garlic harvested in an immature state, before the bulbs are fully formed. I’ve developed a real fancy for the stuff. I particularly like it for the subtle flavor and unctuous quality it imparts to green herby sauces that are good with fish. If you enjoy green garlic, it is well worth planting some just for that purpose: it’s expensive at the market, and you can harvest it in time to use the space for summer crops. And you don’t have to worry about curing it.

Maturity and proper curing are crucial factors in determining how well and how long the garlic will store. Garlic heads are usually ready for harvest sometime in July or early August, when the lower leaves begin to yellow and wither. Hardneck varieties, like the big, succulent Chesnok heads I admired at Andre’s farm stand, produce a flowering stalk (the “whistle”) that emerges from the center of the bulb and eventually becomes woody. These varieties are relatively early to mature and have a shorter shelf life than softneck garlic, which produces no whistles and is the type used for braiding. Andre harvests hardnecks in July, cures them for three weeks and expects the bulbs to keep until December. Properly cured softneck garlic will keep up to nine or 12 months, depending on variety.

Here’s a useful quote from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds: “When harvesting garlic, take extra care not to bruise the bulbs. Gently shake or brush off most of the soil and then transfer the plants — with stems still attached — to a cool, dry area out of direct sunlight. Spread the plants out in a single layer; good air circulation during the curing process is very important. Garlic bulbs should cure for about a month. The process is complete once the stem is completely dry all the way down to the head. Cut the stems off about an inch above the top of the head and put the heads into a mesh bag or basket. Any bulbs that haven’t dried properly or show signs of decay should be used up first. Store garlic in a dark place with relatively low humidity. Ideal storage temperature is a chilly 35 to 40 degrees F. Maintaining a consistently cool temperature will prevent sprouting.”