Photograph by Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Garlic bulbs were everywhere at a garlic festival in Toronto in September.
Photograph by Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Plant Heirloom Garlic Now, Reap Rewards in the Spring

It’s bulb season. About this time of year, people punch holes in the ground and plop in bulbs that sleep all winter, shooting up in the spring. Tiny green blub shoots poking up from the dirt are one of the first and most anticipated signs of the new season in some parts of the world. One bulb has been forgotten by most people in October’s planting frenzy, and it’s surely the tastiest: garlic.

By Italian tradition (also known as being smacked upside the head by a respected elder if you don’t do it), garlic is to be planted on the evening of October’s full moon. This year, it’s October 27, so avoiding the smack is still possible.

Planting garlic is as easy as planting tulip bulbs: poke hole in ground, drop in garlic clove, cover with dirt, wait for spring. Cloves from a store-bought head of garlic might work, but they aren’t reliable for growing ,and more important aren’t where the fun is. Because most people know what “regular” garlic tastes like and, although it is delicious, it is often grown for its storage capabilities and heartiness rather than flavor (like a lot of produce in grocery stores). There is a better gardening trick waiting.

Garlic comes in dozens of varieties and flavors, ranging from mild to sweet to spicy to herbaceous. For those concerned about maintaining seed and plant diversity in an age of big-agriculture homogenization, planting garlic is an opportunity to preserve and promote variety, without too much work or a green thumb. Heirloom garlic is available from seed catalogues or farms that specialize in garlic. Within each variety, specific cloves are chosen for their suitability for growing—so a gardener’s chances of success are pretty high.

Some favorite garlic varieties: Georgian Fire, which is used by chefs when they want a really hot, full-flavored garlic. Plus the cloves are enormous, so cooks always wind up using a lot, giving a dish both heat and spice at the same time. Compare this to Red Rezan garlic, originally from Moscow, which has equally strong garlic flavor but not the heat of the Georgian Fire. Some varieties are great for roasting, like the Chesnock Red, which turns caramelly and sweet when heated.

And then there’s the Inchelium Red, which several contests have named the best-tasting garlic. Good luck buying it anywhere, even a farmers’ market. Because unlike, say, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom garlic hasn’t caught on. Even with names like Transylvania (found in the Transylvania Mountains—not an homage to Count Dracula).

Plant a bunch, because friends will want them, and mark where each variety is planted. If the climate gets very cold in winter, cover with mulch, leaves, or straw to keep the ground from freezing.

In spring, a thin green shoot will come out of the ground (this is the green part cooks sometimes find in the middle of cloves of old garlic). When this green shoot gets yellow and falls over, pull up the garlic and hang it in a cool, dry place for a couple of weeks. You’ll be swimming in garlic all year.

I’m not sure how the full-moon-in-October lore came to America—maybe from Italy along with many garlic varieties in the mid-19th century. Maybe there is truth in it, from the moon’s effects on the gravitational pull on water in the ground. The Farmers Almanac Astrological Timetable gives October 28 as one of the best days to plant, although it also provides best days to start a diet, cut hair, and pickle sauerkraut.

Regardless, October is the month to plant heirloom garlic to reap your reward in 2016.