So… I’m in trouble.
You know how you have these great ideas? I’m going to grow tomatoes from seed! Let’s get chickens! I wonder if we could grow some different hops to make beer? You know the ones. Where you think, it will be so easy! I’ll just order me a packet of tomato seeds/a trio of chicks/ a hop plant from the garden store.
And then you find out that each of these ideas has a miraculous, fascinating history and diversity entangled in historical drama and ancestral culture, and you require not only much time to explore and research, but also MUCH MORE SPACE than you originally intended.
Well, time to add garlic to that list.
Last year, I realized just how easy garlic was to grow after we harvested the volunteers that we didn’t even know we had. Last fall, I headed to the garden store and bought the standard garlic for these parts, a porcelain hard-neck variety with impressively big bulbs developed on Gabriola Island. I planted 30 or so cloves, and then realized I was being ridiculous–we needed way more than 30 bulbs of garlic to get us through the year! So I went to a local farm and bought another few bulbs and planted another 35 or so cloves, so that not only would we have enough for the year, but enough seed garlic to start again this year.
And it was a great success! I grew beautiful (if slightly rust-affected from the July rains), big bulbs that I happily cured and stored in the pantry. I picked out my biggest ones (HUGE!) and replanted 70 or so cloves to be able to do the same again next year. Job Done.
Then one day, I was talking to my neighbour, who told me that her hard-neck garlic hadn’t stored all that well, and that she had run out of garlic in the early spring. Oh no! I did a little research into the rabbit hole that is information about the history and types of garlic and came out with 2 realizations: 1) garlic history and families and breeding is incredibly complicated and I could spend a lifetime reading and never fully get my head around it, and 2) I needed me some soft-neck garlic.
A quick distillation of the facts I was able to retain: hard neck garlic has big cloves, produces yummy scapes all spring, but stores for a shorter period of time (5 months?); while softneck garlic has smaller cloves, it doesn’t produce scapes, but that means you can braid it for storage, and it stores longer.
Where was I going to find some soft-neck garlic?
Well, the Skipper and I pass a farm stand every day that is just up the road from us. They mostly sell animal products and flowers at the stand, so we had never stopped in. But a couple of weeks ago, we pulled in for a relish tasting that they had up. (Yum!) We watched their beautiful Narragansett turkeys range about (surely we could make some room for a couple of these?!) and admired the free-ranging chickens. Adele, one of the farmers, came out and chatted with us for ages about the farm and everything they do. Skipper bought some awesome wool socks made from her heritage-sheep wool. Then we noticed the garlic.
Adele had 4 or 5 kinds out, all with bewildering names. But I spotted the keyword: soft-neck. Turns out she was selling the small cloves there inexpensively for kitchen use, but that she had a barn full of curing seed garlic that she could probably go through if I was interested. She gave me a copy of their garlic list, and I latched on to the only name that meant anything to me from the soft-necks: Creston. Creston is a town in the BC interior where I have cousins. It’s as good a criteria as any! We laughed as she agreed that when going through massive lists of available types, sometimes how the name appeals to you is the only way to narrow your choices.
I took a head of the Creston garlic home to taste, and agreed to come back for seed garlic. Skipper and a friend and I later compared the flavour of the Creston to the porcelain that I had grown. Wow! They were so different! Who knew?
When I went back to meet Adele last weekend to pick up the seed garlic, I had no idea what I was getting into. I mentioned to her that we had been amazed at the different flavours and heats available, and wouldn’t mind experimenting a little more. She said the magic words, “well, I think I have some other types handy in the house…” I jumped at the bait. I came home with 5 different types of garlic: a bulb to taste and another to plant of each type if we liked it.
WARNING: IF YOUR GARDEN BEDS ARE ALREADY PLANNED AND PLANTED FOR THIS YEAR, DO NOT LOOK AT THE PHOTOS BELOW!
From the list I had drooled over,
I picked out the Creston soft-neck, then 2 more Rocambole varieties:
The Chinese Pink is described as:
“Very early season. Garlic lovers rejoice! When fall planted, this extra-early-maturing variety will put fresh garlic back into your … recipes a whopping 4-6 weeks ahead of almost all others… in late May to early June.”
How cool is that?! I started to realize that if I really got organized, I could plant different varieties to stagger harvest and storage times in order to have a steady stream all year round…
The Cuban Purple:
“In most years, the darkest of the Creole garlics, … a distinctly purple colour that can be almost a dusty blackish at times. TASTE=WOW! a rich, earthy garlicky flavour with very little pungency.”
We confirm; the taste is awesome. It has a bit of bite at first, but then quickly mellows into sweetness. It was almost overpowered in a salad dressing, but I bet would be amazing in an aioli. See? You need different garlic for different dishes!
Next up is a Purple Striped variety, which are described as having 8-12 cloves per bulb that keep well. I chose the lovely Siberian Red Stripe:
Are you ready? I’ve saved the best for last. It’s an heirloom French variety that literally took my breath away when Adele brought it out. If she’d brought it out first, I might not have taken anything else! We have confirmed that it has a fantastic flavour, with the perfect amount of punch for salad dressings. Adele’s catalogue description:
“a French creole variety that is medium-hot… loved for its unique flavour described as a “deep sort of muskiness.” Harvests mid-late season and stores 7-8 months.”
Except for the temptation of some of the others on the list that I may have to return to for next year (Tibetan! Tuscan! Korean! Persian Star! Yugoslavian!), this last one I think may become our signature, house garlic. ‘Cause you know, everyone needs a signature garlic.
So now the real challenge begins. I clearly need a bed set aside for all of these types to be grown as experiments. As it is, though, I don’t have space to rotate my tomatoes and potatoes this year unless we create some new beds… so…time to reorganize the garden to create more vegetable beds! And I guess garlic will go on my Christmas gift list for next fall, while I whittle down my choices so that I can keep to the same 70 or so bulbs that should get us through the year and that I can fit in the space I have. Hope I haven’t created the same problems for you!
If you’d like to contact Adele or get a copy of her dangerous, corrupting garlic list, her family’s Legacy Farm (no website) is on Koksilah Rd, with the red roofs, just as you turn off the Island Highway. I can pass along her email if anyone is interested.