Choose the best garlic for your garden

ST. HELENS-Vampires beware. Garlic is growing throughout the Northwest.

October is the best month to plant garlic in your garden in most places in Oregon. But before you plant, take the opportunity to sample some of the varieties, and choose your favorites to grow in the garden.

There are more than 100 varieties available for Northwest gardeners, each with their own distinctive taste and fire, according to Chip Bubl, garlic expert and agricultural agent at the Columbia County office of the Oregon State University Extension Service in St. Helens. Many are available now in specialty stores and farmers' markets, since this year's crop has just been harvested.

Some cultivars, such as Chet's red Italian, are very mild in flavor, fire and aftertaste. Others, such as the Korean varieties, are hot and strong.

Sulfur-containing compounds produce the pungent taste in garlic. These are the same compounds that have been credited with purported health benefits, including lowering cholesterol levels. Yet even slight differences in growing conditions, storage and preparation of garlic can have a profound effect on its taste, Bubl pointed out. Most garlic changes in storage, not always completely predictably. And all garlic changes with cooking.

Garlics fall into two types. Non-flowering soft-stemmed varieties, such as the ones in the supermarket, are easy to braid and variable in taste. Top-setting, hard-stemmed varieties often are preferred by Northwest gardeners and gourmet cooks. These varieties are called top-setting because they produce tall stalks ('scapes') that loop at the top and burst open with tiny garlic bulblets at the end of a flowering stalk. But it is the fat underground bulb that is the true prize.

Hardstem garlic bulbs have large easy-to-peel cloves. Many people prefer their rich, pungent flavor. Varieties include the Asiatics ('Korean Red'), the rocamboles ('German Red' and 'Spanish Roja') and purple-striped garlic ('Chesnok Red').

Elephant garlic, actually a type of leek, produces large, mild-tasting cloves, usually fewer per bulb than the true garlics.

Once you have tasted several varieties of garlic, pick the best of the bunch to plant. Select healthy large cloves, free of disease. "The larger the clove you plant, the bigger the bulb you will get the following summer," said Bubl.

All types of garlic thrive in full sun in well-drained organic soil - a sandy loam is best. On heavier soil, plant in raised beds that are two to three feet wide and at least 10 to 12 inches deep. Before planting, lime the soil if needed and work in a couple tablespoons of complete fertilizer several inches below where the base of the garlic will rest. Plant cloves root side down, two inches deep and two inches apart in rows spaced about a foot apart. Space elephant garlic cloves about six inches apart.

Garlic is rarely damaged by insects, but it requires weeding. Give garlic a boost with a side dressing of fertilizer in early spring and again in mid-May. As the spring weather dries out, water garlic to a depth of two feet every eight to 10 days. As mid-June approaches, taper off the watering.

Start checking for mature cloves about late June. Harvest garlic when the head is divided into plump cloves and the skin covering the outside of the bulbs is thick, dry and papery. A single 10-foot row should yield about five pounds of the fragrant bulbs.

Dry the mature bulbs in a shady, warm, dry and well-ventilated area for a few days. Then remove the tops and roots, and lightly brush off dirt from the bulbs. Store garlic in a dark, dry, well-ventilated place. Protect from high humidity and freezing. According to Bubl, neither the garage nor the refrigerator are good places to store garlic - the cool humidity stimulates sprouting. If stored properly, many varieties should last until the next crop is harvested, the following summer.

Siberian is a particularly good keeper. But each variety you plant will yield different results. Bubl suggests that you store garlic in labeled paper bags so you can keep track of those varieties that are especially delicious or that store well.

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