A Plunge into Pungent Alliums

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thorness_bill-imag0074BY BILL THORNESS
ILLUSTRATION BY BUDOGOSH

As pumpkins appear on porches, carved into grins, think about warding off vampires – but not by hanging a necklace of garlic across your shoulders. It would be better to spike some cloves into the ground.

The sturdy cloves, like bulbs of our ephemeral spring tulips and narcissus, need a bit of time in the cold, dark soil before springing to life, so we get them in the ground in late fall. That “vernalizing” period will trigger them to waken like Dracula after sundown.

If you want to spice up your garden meals with fresh homegrown garlic, now is the time to plan, and soon it will be time to plant. You might also consider others of the Allium genus: shallots and overwintering onions.

WHERE TO PLANT

A late summer survey of the garden probably leads your eye right to the spot for fall alliums: where the last of the summer crops are coming out. The tomato and pepper bed is a good candidate, as is the sprawling squash patch.

Experts advise that alliums love a sunny spot, but then again, what (or who) doesn’t (except for vampires)? If you can’t create a Miami Beach high-rise in which to cram all your winter veggies, use your prime real estate for a crop that you’ll visit regularly, like kale, and relegate the alliums, needing only occasional access, to a more distant bed.

Recall, though, that garlic and shallots are long-season crops which won’t be harvested until next summer, so give up space that you won’t be coveting in the spring.

Chart where the alliums go from year to year, because your best defense against diseases like onion rust is to not plant them in the same bed in consecutive years; use a three-year rotation.

Alliums make a perfect rotation crop in our maritime gardens because of their season: They go in when summer crops come out, and they come out when fall and winter crops go in. It’s ideal.

CULTIVATION TIPS

ESEAAn allium bed needs well-draining soil so that winter moisture won’t cause rot, and to promote full growth of the garlic head or onion bulb. Compost assists in creating soil that drains well and stays loose.

Although alliums are not “heavy feeders,” the bed should have a medium level of balanced organic fertilizer. Too much nitrogen is not good for alliums, but here again, the season serves you well. Often, summer crops deplete the nitrogen level, and winter rains wash even more of it out of the soil. So a good strategy is to apply a fertilizer that is higher in potassium (the second of the N-P-K numbers) and lower in nitrogen.

With your bed fertilized and straw standing by, you’re ready to plant.

Carefully break apart a head of garlic into individual cloves and plant each one, pointy end up, 3-4 inches under the soil and 4-6 inches apart. Individual shallots go in at the same depth, with 8-inch spacing. Separate the tiny onion seedlings carefully, and plant them in a shallow trench, 4-6 inches apart.

After planting the alliums, cover the bed with a loose straw mulch. This keeps weeds from sprouting, holds in the existing moisture if the late fall is dry, and prevents soil compaction during heavier winter rains. It also protects the young emerging plants from the desiccating effects of winter winds.

SNAP UP A HARDNECK

Those poor souls only shopping the supermarket might think that garlic comes in just two forms: white and elephant. But as it has made its way from western Asia through the Mediterranean to America over many centuries, garlic types have proliferated. Descriptive names like silverskin, porcelain, and purple stripe evoke their traits, but what do you get with rocambole or artichoke garlics? The colorful monikers — further enhanced by evocative variety names — make the standard market’s “California white” seem even blander.

One more category to further muddy the garlic eld: hardneck versus softneck. Hard-necks send up a central hard stem that produces a seed head, commonly referred to as a “scape,” a spring delicacy on the table. The softnecks, which do not produce that seed head, have pliable vegetation that makes the harvested plants “braidable.” Another difference: Softnecks generally have longer storage life than hardnecks, due to a tighter bulb wrapper.

Here’s an abbreviated review of the types, naming my favorite varieties of each strain:

  • Artichoke is a softneck type, so named because of its layers of cloves to peel away. It’s beautiful braided and high yielding. I grow Inchelium Red, an heirloom discovered on the Colville Indian Reservation in eastern Washington.
  • Silverskin is a softneck garlic type similar to the artichoke type, but not as layered. A small but delightful variety is Nootka Rose, an heirloom from the San Juan Islands.
  • Rocambole is the champion hardneck, with varieties that people say have the truest garlic flavor. Their looser skins mean they peel easily, but they don’t keep as long. I enjoy my favorite variety, Spanish Roja, for at least four months after harvest.
  • Purple Stripe is a hardneck type similar to rocambole and is good for baking. Try Chesnok Red.
  • Porcelain is a hardneck too. It has the fewest cloves of any garlic (maybe only 4!), with generally a hot taste. Music and Georgian Fire are two reliables.

One final note: Elephant garlic, while bounteous and well-suited to our climate, is not an actual garlic. It’s more akin to leeks. The softball-sized bulbs produce mild garlic flavor and are prized for roasting and mashing into a spread.

Buy your first seed garlic from a professional grower to avoid the chance of the cloves having diseases. After that, replant from your own supply. When sorting for storage, save the best bulbs for planting.

SLIP IN SHALLOTS, ONIONS TOO

Although such numerous choices lure you, don’t just plant garlic; slip in a few shallots and overwintering onions, and next spring and summer you will be allium-wealthy.

Shallots are gourmet treats that are expensive in the store and so are more precious in the ground. Their more delicate onion flavor is prized in a finishing sauce or salad dressing. I like French Red, a medium-sized bulb that stores well, but there are a number of French and Dutch varieties to try.

Overwintering onions can be sown as seedlings in the fall (or as seeds in July and August). You’ll find seedling sprouts ganged up in a 4-inch pot at the nursery, and your job will be to carefully separate them when planting.

Try Walla Walla Sweets for overwintering. They grow slowly through the winter, then form bulbs in May and can be harvested in June. Also try Evergreen scallions for cutting throughout the winter.

You can thank your garlic for the first sign of spring, which will delight your eyes as the pale green shoots spike through the straw mulch in late January. That’s right — before you have even considered planting any spring crops outside, your garlic signals your garden’s return to life. Pull back the straw a bit to allow air circulation around the plants and to avoid mildew or rot, and just watch them rise, like a certain Transylvanian nobleman…

Bill Thorness is the author of Cool Season Gardener and Edible Heirlooms. He is in debt to the Okanogan’s amazing Filaree Garlic Farm for much allium education, as well as his Spanish Roja seed garlic, which he’s been replanting for nearly 20 years.

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