Garlic has been used as both food and medicine since at least the 25th century BCE, around the time that the pyramids were being constructed at Giza, Egypt. In his Ecologues, Virgil writes all about garlic being consumed by ancient Greek and Roman soldiers, and it is was grown in England by the mid-16th century. This is curious given the modern English attitude toward garlic. As late as 1997, Dr. D.G. Hessayon warned in his bestselling book, The Vegetable & Herb Expert:
If you are a beginner with garlic, you must use it very sparingly or you will be put off forever. Rub a wooden salad bowl with a clove before adding the ingredients…. And then you can try dropping a whole unskinned clove into a casserole or stew, removing it before serving. If by then you have lost a little of your garlic fear, you can try using crushed (not chopped) garlic in meat, etc. as the Continentals do.
(Here we are, eating the stuff raw and spreading it on bread!)
Garlic is a perennial member of the onion family, Alliaceae, and is closely related to leeks, onions, shallots, and chives. All of these plants send up hollow, tubular (sometimes flattened) leaves from a bulb that grows below the ground. The leaves are followed by a flower stalk (scape), and then by the flower itself. Garlic may also produce “bulbils” – tiny bulbs that may begin to sprout, on the flower head. All parts of the garlic plant are edible, but the bulb is the most prized and useful in the kitchen.
The garlic bulb (or “head”) is an organ the plant uses to store food during adverse weather or over winter, when the leaves cannot photosynthesize. It is divided into numerous fleshy cloves, each wrapped in a papery husk, which should be removed prior to eating. Each clove, if planted in early spring or autumn, will produce a new head. If left to its own devices, garlic will eventually form a small clump as its bulbs spread over the years.
Softneck garlic is easy to grow in mild climates. Choose the hardneck varieties for areas where winters are severe. Softneck usually produces smaller, more numerous cloves per head, and it stores particularly well. Storing garlic is all about keeping it relatively warm and dry. This encourages the cloves to stay dormant, and prevents them from sprouting.
Garlic is one of the most universally accepted culinary ingredients, appreciated around the world for its pungent flavour and its incredible versatility in complementing meat, vegetables, breads, and eggs. It is grown commercially all over the world, notably in China, where over 12 million tons are produced each year.
Aside from its diverse uses in the kitchen, garlic has long been appreciated as a medicine. It is known to have antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal properties, but extensive scientific studies have shown conflicting results in humans. Garlic appears to play a role in reducing the accumulation of certain types of cholesterol, as well as regulating blood sugar levels in humans, but the actual processes are not well understood. In traditional herbal medicine, garlic has been used to fight parasites, prevent the common cold, and treat respiratory complaints. Rats fed on high protein diets supplemented with garlic showed increased levels of testosterone.
Eating garlic, of course, also causes bad breath. This fact did not escape early physicians, including Culpepper: “The offensiveness of the breath of him that hath eaten Garlick, will lead you by the nose to the knowledge thereof.” In Islamic tradition, eating garlic prior to attending the mosque is viewed as inappropriate. The odour of garlic (caused by complex sulphur compounds) may explain why it was held in such high regard in central European folklore as a ward against demons, werewolves, and vampires – and it really was used for this purpose, hung in the house, or rubbed around windows, chimneys, and keyholes.
However it is eaten, garlic is high in protein, vitamin C, potassium, calcium, and phosphorus, as well as other beneficial nutrients. It can be eaten raw, cooked, preserved in oil, wine, or vinegar, and it forms a base for countless sauces and dips (hummus, pesto, aioli, vinaigrette, to name a few) which can then be kept fresh for days if refrigerated. Dried garlic can also be powdered and kept in an airtight container for up to a year or more. If substituting powdered garlic for fresh, 1/8 teaspoon = 1 fresh clove.
Garlic festivals are popular across Canada and around the world. Since 1999, the South Cariboo Garlic Festival has been held in 100 Mile House, B.C. The end of August sees a judged garlic cook-off, live music, craft fair, and much other garlic-related mayhem.
How to Grow Garlic:
Difficulty: Easy. Garlic is not suited for growing in containers. This can be done, but it’s better in the ground, or possibly in raised beds.
Timing: Plant cloves from September to the end of November. There is a brief window at the beginning of March when you can plant for a fall harvest, but in this climate garlic performs better if overwintered.
Sowing: Separate the cloves and set each one, pointed end up, 10-15cm (4-6”) apart and with the tip of the clove 2-5cm (1-2”) deep. Don’t skin the cloves! Use deeper planting if rain or frost may expose the cloves, and shallower planting if using mulch or planting into heavy soil. The largest cloves will make the largest bulbs.
Soil: Rich, well drained soil. Dig well, add compost (lots of it if your soil is heavy) and do not compact it by stepping on it. Lime the soil several weeks before planting if the pH is lower than 6.0.
Growing: Fertilize when spring growth starts. Water as needed and keep weeded. Cut flower stalks to keep energy in the bulb. If individual cloves haven’t formed, either eat the clove or replant and it will bulb next year.
Harvest: When the tops begin to dry, pull and air-dry like onions. Some growers recommend waiting until 75% of the plant has dried up before pulling, and others say the key is to pull when each plant is down to 6 green leaves. More on When to Harvest Garlic.
Storage: Store in a room temperature, dry environment. Moisture, heat, or excessive cold may provoke sprouting.
Pests & Disease: Many growers have been hit with White Rot that causes black spots and decay on the bulbs. It is easily spread in infected soil and water and is very persistent in the soil. Flooding the bed for 4 weeks in the spring may kill it. Best way to avoid it is not to leave decaying alliums in the ground and by using a strict 4-year rotation.
Companion Planting: Planting garlic near roses will help to repel aphids. Because of its sulphur compounds, it may also help repel whiteflies, Japanese beetles, root maggots, carrot rust fly, and other pests. Garlic, made into a tea, or spray, will act as a systemic pesticide, drawing up into the cells of the plants. It’s a good companion for beets, Brassicas, celery, lettuce, potatoes, strawberries, and tomatoes. Avoid planting it near peas or beans of any kind. More on Companion Planting.