Growing garlic is something that is fairly new to me, so, I am far from an expert. But, over the last 2 years I have learned plenty about my favorite little Alliums. Mostly, I’ve learned what not to do with garlic and how not to braid it.
I grew garlic for the first time last year. I picked up a bag of garlic sets (bulbs/cloves used for planting onions or garlic) completely as an afterthought while purchasing seed potatoes. That was mistake number one; making an uneducated last-minute purchase from a big-box retail garden center. There are plenty of garden supplies and plants that I would recommend purchasing at large chain retailers, but I do not recommend purchasing onion or garlic sets there. The companies that supply them do not do a great job of altering the inventory to cater to regionally specific gardening needs. The same varieties that are shipped to the North West are sometimes found in stores in the south eastern United States where the day lengths and temperature requirements are vastly different. I cannot count the number of times I have seen people in online forums asking for help, wanting to know why their onions or garlic did not produce bulbs. 90 percent of the time it is because they are varieties that are not intended to be grown in their area. So, like everything else gardening, do your research and don’t make an impulsive purchase like I did.
The garlic I purchased last year was a hard-necked variety that was probably not the greatest cultivar to grow in our Alabama garden. But, I ended up harvesting a couple of dozen halfway decent garlic bulbs anyway.
I was so excited when the garlic started to mature; leaves started dying back and the tops of the bulbs started to push their way through the soil. Somewhat excited about tasting our own homegrown garlic, but mostly excited about the thought of creating a stunningly beautiful garlic braid. Oh, how lovely it would have been to have a long perfectly braided cluster of fat garlic bulbs hanging in our kitchen.
There are many things that motivate me to grow food, my love for pretty things is right up at the top of the list. Honestly that list is something like: Blue ribbons from the county fair, filling our home with beautiful things, eating delicious food, followed by health, the environment and all other good wholesome reasons. So, when it was time to harvest our first garlic instead of planning all the ways I wanted to eat it, I was more concerned with how the new pretty garlic was going to adorn our kitchen wall.
I wanted garlic perfection. Really, what I was imagining were the braids found in 1980s “Italian” restaurant decor; perfect looking chains of fake garlic hanging near 10 year-old sealed bottles of seasoned olive oil, illuminated by tacky stained glass light fixtures.
I read instructions online how to tie a garlic braid. After I had harvested, and partially dried our garlic, it was time to transform it into something spectacular. I was about 10 months pregnant, in ultra-nesting mode, and thought this would be so much fun. Ha! I fought with a pile of garlic for an hour. It would not bend or braid. There were still a few green leaves left on the plants, so I thought they would still be pliable, but they were not. After an hour of complete and total frustration I decided to accept the defeat, and just tie the rigid stems together with twine.
I learned two lessons that day about braiding garlic: #1 Don’t try to braid hard-necked garlic! I had read something that said “soft-necked varieties are easier to braid”. “Easier”, as opposed to totally impossible? I wish something that I read would have told me to not even attempt it.
#2 Hard-neck garlic tied simply with jute twine is pretty. It is simple, non-fussy and really beautiful. I’m very glad that I took this picture of that pretty bundle.
Before purchasing our garlic sets this year, I did a good deal of research and found that there is a world full of vastly different garlic out there. From all of the varieties that are recommended for the southeast, I chose Lorz Italian and Shilla Asiatic Turban garlic.
Lorz Italian is a soft neck variety that was a breeze to easily manipulate into what I consider a garlic braid success! However, I’m sure a seasoned garlic tying Italian Grandmother would not be impressed by my plaiting skills. Ideally the bulbs would be closer together and the braid would be tighter. I don’t care. I think it is just fine and most importantly, delicious.
The flavor of home grown garlic is far superior to grocery store garlic. It is stronger, sweeter and spicier, with different varieties performing in different ways. Our turban garlic has a bit of spice and freshness that is ideal in Asian foods. While the Lorz Italian has a stronger sweet flavor with less spice, making it more suitable for Mediteranian foods. I have been very happy with both of them and will probably grow both next year, if they store well.
Order garlic sets in the fall from reputable suppliers and you will probably harvest a far nicer crop than anything grown from store bought sets. The production and flavor of both varieties I grew this year have been great. I would recommend either Southern Exposure Seed Exchange or Keene Organics as great sources for quality garlic.
Garlic is a a wonderful crop that can store beautifully well into the winter. It is also simply beautiful hanging in or near the kitchen, regardless of how perfectly it is bound together. Braided or bundled, it is still delicious and lovely. I may never win a “Best of Fair” ribbon for an extravagant 4 foot garlic braid, but I’m cooking with amazingly flavorful garlic cloves, and making the most of each square foot of our garden’s space.