Story by Chris Smith | Photos by Joye Ardyn Durham
Squash, tomatoes and beans each boast a panoply of colors and flavors. Even if we don’t grow and enjoy them personally, most of us know something about their variety. But garlic surprises people. As a culinary necessity, we may experience garlic largely through a few cultivars of artichoke garlic grown in China, Korea or ‘locally’ in California. But there are many hundreds of named cultivars out there and getting to know their subtle differences is a joy.
The first distinction for the budding garlic grower is the choice between softneck and hardneck garlic. In general, softnecks have more cloves per bulb, store for longer and have a greater tolerance for heat. Hardnecks are easier to peel, carry more complex flavors and send out an edible ‘scape’ in late spring. Both thrive in our region.
Right now, during the fall season, is the best time to purchase and plant seed garlic. Seed garlic refers to garlic cloves that have been tested for common diseases and have not been sprayed with sprouting inhibitors. Once planted, each clove will grow into a garlic plant and form a new bulb.
Seed garlic or garlic seed?
A clove is not a seed. There have been no flowers, no pollination, no mixing of genes. Rather, growing garlic is a form of clonal propagation (much like growing potatoes). The new garlic bulb that we harvest in summer is an identical genetic match to the clove we planted the fall before.
Garlic seed is a rare thing. Selective breeding over thousands of years to grow garlic without a flower (leading to larger bulbs) has led to garlic’s ubiquitous infertility. The advantages of cross-pollination and varietal improvement are all but lost to garlic (note: current projects are in the process of re-breeding seed garlic).
In southern Appalachia, we may not manage production on the scale of California, but we can grow some mighty fine garlic. Garlic expresses strong phenotypical traits. In other words, genetically identical garlics will show different skin color, clove size and taste characteristics based on environmental conditions (a major reason why there are so many named cultivars).
WNC Garlic Fest
If Gilroy, CA, can have a garlic festival, then certainly Asheville deserves one, too. October 1, 2016, marks the third annual WNC Garlic Fest, organized by Sow True Seed. WNC Garlic Fest is a celebration of all things garlic, with local vendors offering a wide selection of surprising garlicky delights.
Enjoy delights from local vendors such as garlic ice cream, a garlic ganache and garlic caramel vinaigrette (just to name a few). There will be garlic farmers, garlic fanatics and free garlic growing workshops.
WNC Garlic Fest aims to bring the awesome and varied world of garlic to the awesome people of our region. Please accept this invite to join us for a free garlic-centric, smelly but wonderful experience! Vampires welcome, if they dare!
Learn more at wncgarlicfest.com or at Plough to Pantry’s event listing.
Sow True Seed Garlic Varieties
German Red: a staff favorite hardneck variety with beautiful purple-red skin coloration, great flavor and excellent productivity.
Incellium: a Slow Foods Ark of Taste variety with complex flavors, large cloves and good storage.
Elephant Garlic: not a ‘true garlic’ but actually a bulbing leek. Mild garlic flavor with massive cloves.
More varieties and growing information at sowtrueseed.com.
This story has been reproduced here from The Laurel of Asheville‘s sister publication Plough to Pantry. Chris Smith is community coordinator for Sow True Seed. On his one-half acre homestead, he experiments with landraces, selective seed saving, crop trials and seed grow outs.