The myth may be Romanian in origin, but in the context of our globalized food system, there’s still some truth in it. The garlic you may be eating is likely to have been grown in China, fumigated with methyl bromide (a biotoxin), bleached white, and treated with growth inhibitors. The devil really can be in the details.
Now is the time to plant garlic in Victoria and I guarantee it will be one of the most rewarding plants you’ve grown. Break a bulb apart, plant one clove, wait nine months, and each clove multiplies itself into a bulb. I have managed to grow enough garlic to be self-sustaining in a raised 5×14-foot bed, planting the cloves closely, about eight inches apart. (At approximately seven cloves per bulb, I might plant only 20 bulbs worth of cloves, to yield 140 bulbs the next summer).
I don’t solely plant my own ‘seed’ cloves from year to year, but also refresh my stock by ordering from Saltspring Seed Garlic, the best local provider I’ve found: send a cheque and healthy bulbs arrive by post within a week.
I grow both softneck (the kind you can braid) and hardneck, which produce oily large fist-sized bulbs. The growing requirements are the same for both types: decent drainage, soil augmented with compost, a touch of lime, a sprinkle of organic fertilizer, and at the very least a half-day of sun. That’s it: You plant in the fall and harvest the next July, truly not giving the plants much thought.
In our region, the red Russian varieties do very well: the cloves are fat, easy to peel, and store well until spring (when they have tendency to sprout but are still entirely edible). Speaking of sprouting, one of the bonuses of growing your own garlic is that in June, when your stash has almost run out, the plants send up a flowering shoot, known as a scape. These can be used like cloves and harvesting them ensures a larger bulb. Think of the scape from the plant’s perspective: it wants to reproduce, so it sends its energy into making seeds, in the form of a wonderfully sexy flower. By snipping off that single bloom, you direct the plant’s energy back into the bulb.
If you don’t have time to order your bulbs, plan a trip to a farmers’ market to buy an unsprayed variety from a local producer. You may pay $5 a bulb, but you will be guaranteed a locally-adapted variety that will yield $30 of garlic next summer, curse free.
Christin Geall teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is an avid gardener.