The last time I had to pay for garlic, Bill Clinton was president and gas was a dollar a gallon. A buddy and I went in on a 50-pound sack of Killarney Red garlic, mail-ordered from a farm by the same name in northern Idaho. It cost a few hundred bucks, but when you’re buying garlic for planting, it feels more like an investment than an expense.
We planted on borrowed land in the southwest hills of Portland, Ore. The following summer, we harvested a few hundred pounds, an insane amount of garlic for two single guys. When autumn returned, we reinvested 50 pounds of our harvest into round two. And so on, season after season, in different yards and fields across the West. Eventually my garlic bro and I went separate ways, each with our share of Killarney Red.
A few years later I happened upon some gorgeous heads of Romanian Red garlic at a barter fair in north-central Washington, where the world’s best garlic is grown. I invested in 20 pounds and brought it home, where I planted almost every clove.
My Romanian Red is spectacular in every way. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in garlic. Great flavor, easy peeling and it grows large and robust. I stopped planting the other kind and I’ve been living on Romanian Red since then. That is, until two years ago, when I didn’t plant enough.
Actually, it was my sweetheart who didn’t plant enough, while I was off hunting and couldn’t be bothered to micromanage. I only realized the error the following spring when the plants came up, and there weren’t enough.
She had obviously not followed our garlic equation, and that stung. In practical terms, it meant that after we removed from our meager harvest the correct amount to plant for next year, our stash would be nearly gone. We’d probably have to start paying for our bulb a day habit by January. Rather than surrender to this humiliation, I invested again.
I spent $180 online on a bunch of different hardneck garlic varieties, including Turkish Red, Pskem, Pennsylvania Dutch, Metechi, Zemo, Russian Red, Russian Inferno, Chinese Red and White, and Vostok.
Most varieties were tasty, but only the Metechi, Pennsylvania Dutch and Chinese Red and White were competitive size-wise, and I’ll be replanting a limited amount of those for variety. But none bested the Romanian Red, size-wise, and it remains my go-to.
I planted according to our equation, which calculates how many bulbs from the harvest must be set aside for planting in order to generate a self-sustaining garlic crop.
After brain-cramping mathematical challenges, planting the garlic is the easy part. It’s generally planted in October or November. You want good dirt with plenty of organic material and nitrogen. Carefully break the bulbs into individual cloves, leaving the peel on and trying not to break off the little scabby plate at the bottom of each clove where the root comes out.
Plant the cloves with the scabby side down, an inch deep, six inches apart. Then mulch your patch with straw—not hay—about three inches deep. It will keep your garlic warm in the winter and help the soil hold moisture come spring, when the young garlic will poke through the mulch, at which point it’s off to the races. Water it well. When the leaves start turning brown despite dedicated watering, it’s time to harvest.
Entire books have been written on the subject of garlic cultivation, and if you’re serious about investing your time, money and land into a real garlic crop, you might want to consult a more in-depth source. I recommend Ron Engeland’s Growing Great Garlic as a great how-to guide.
In the meantime, go online or hit the local farmers market for some bulbs to plant. Try as many varieties as you can. The more diversity in your trials, the more likely it is you’ll find your own Romanian Red.
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