Growing Garlic: A Culinary Building Block

Growing garlic has become a real favorite activity here in our Arizona desert garden. We love the flavor that we get from these pungent little bulbs. A few split cloves go into almost every pot of beans as they simmer on the stove or hum away in the slow cooker. Their rich flavor infuses the beans as they cook, making them irresistible. We often spoon up a bowl of hot, garlicky beans right out of the pan, without any other additions except salt.

Growing garlic and including it in your cooking provides a variety of culinary and health benefits from a plant that has been part of cooking traditions for over 5,000 years. Garlic, a native to Central Asia, was revered in ancient Egypt as well as in many cultures through history. Today, garlic has became one of the fundamental ingredients in recipes all over the world.

Garlic’s fame is due to its use as a medicine as well as a food. Garlic contains chemical compounds that are potent antibacterials, antifungals, and antivirals. Supplements of garlic have been shown to retard cardiovascular disease and the common cold as well as strengthening the immune system. When garlic is prescribed by an herbal medicine practitioner, it is in the raw form, but even cooked garlic has been shown to have substantial health benefits.

And growing garlic yourself is so easy – why wouldn’t you do it and enjoy a constant supply of organic garlic hanging in your pantry, just waiting to be bashed, slashed and added to your favorite dish?

Growing garlic is as easy as going to the grocery store, buying some fresh garlic in the produce department, breaking up the heads into individual cloves, and planting them. Well, maybe a little more complicated than that, but not much!

We plant our garlic crop in the fall, about six weeks before freezing weather comes (here at the Bear Cave that means mid-October). We plant in well-cultivated, fertile soil, amended with our compost.

Growing garlic doesn’t like acidic soil, but that’s no problem for us. The large deposits of limestone under our topsoil see to that. Each clove should be planted pointed side up so that the tip lies 1-2 inches below the soil after the soil is firmed around it.

Garlic comes in two different types, hardneck and softneck. In the spring, hardneck varieties grow reproductive structures called scapes out of the middle of the plant. These are usually cut off since they rob energy from the forming bulb. The stems of the scapes become the "hard neck" which forms the core of the garlic bulb. Hardneck garlics tend not to keep as well as softneck varieties that don’t grow scapes.

This year, thanks to bulbs donated to our garden by an expert garlic grower who lives just a few miles away, we planted four great varieties of garlic. We divided our garlic bed among Oregon Blue, Japanese, Shantung Purple, and Chilean Silver.

The Oregon Blue, Shantung Purple, and Chilean Silver all sprouted about the same time and were, consequently, ready to harvest at the same time.

The Japanese, a late starter, is looking great albeit lonely in the garlic bed by itself. Next year, we will cluster the Japanese closest to the irrigation head so that we can cut off the water to the mature varieties and permit the slower growing Japanese to keep on growing for a couple extra weeks.

Plant individual cloves about 4 inches apart in rows 8-12 inches apart. Water regularly as the leaves come up and while the plants are growing actively. In all but the coldest climates, growing garlic will overwinter. We apply row cover on the coldest nights and mulch to keep the soil cool in hot weather.

In late spring or early summer, the leaves of the garlic plants will start to dry and turn brown. When they have died back about halfway, stop watering to allow the bulbs to dry somewhat before they are lifted out of the soil. After a couple of weeks without water, dig the bulbs and lay them out in a dry, well-shaded location to cure. Leave all the leaves on the plants until they are completely dry.

The papery dry layers can be rubbed off and the roots trimmed after the bulbs dry. Bundle the bulbs in groups of 6-8 and hang to dry completely. Use the garlic by cutting individual bulbs to bring into the kitchen. Store garlic in a cool, dry location. Hanging is best so the bulbs have plenty of air circulation.

One of our favorite books about garlic is Garlic is Life, by Chester Aaron. Part memoir, part technical manual, the book is the recounting of the love affairs the author had with garlic, with the California land where he gardened, and with his future wife.

It is a truly lyrical evocation of life on the land, the ways in which one can develop a passion for a plant (in this case, garlic), and the ways adventure can be a part of life even in old age. Read it to be inspired, and to learn more about garlic varieties and culture.

Here's a recipe from the book.

Pasta Aglio e Olio

Serves 6

  • 2 pounds dry pasta
  • 2 heads garlic (the author recommends Lorz Italian or Russian Red Toch)
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • A very large handful of flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped

In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the pasta until al dente.

While the pasta cooks, prepare the sauce. In a medium skillet, saute the garlic in the oil over low heat until the garlic is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes and salt. Add the lemon juice. Turn off the heat.

When the oil is cool, add the parsley. Pour the hot, drained pasta into a shallow serving bowl. Cover with the warm sauce. Mix well. Serve immediately.

If you already cook with garlic, we suggest that you expand your culinary repertoire by growing and cooking with a number of different varieties. They have as many flavors to offer as varietal wines.

If you don't already cook with garlic, you may well want to start. We think you are definitely not getting all the flavor you can out of your recipes, especially when you cook beans and whole grains.

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