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Gardening tips for growing great garlic

By By Gail Barton / horticulture columnist
June 1, 2003
Last weekend, I visited an old friend in Jackson. The weather was beautiful, so we sat in her front yard and admired a new flower bed she had just planted.
In an older bed nearby, her garlic was in full bloom. We watched with interest as three hummingbirds fought over the garlic flower nectar.
Apparently hummers like garlic as much as I do.
Most everyone has eaten garlic, but it is so cheap and plentiful, few have grown their own. Garlic (allium sativum) is related to onions, daffodils, amaryllis and lilies. It is a perennial plant and is usually very long-lived.
Garlic foliage look like a blue-tinted version of daylily leaves. The plant growth follows a similar cycle to that of daffodils. During late fall or winter, a rosette of leaves sprouts from a garlic bulb buried in the ground. The foliage remains green all winter and spring.
In late spring, a curious-looking stem emerges from the rosette of foliage. This flower stalk grows to a height of 3 feet or more and is held well above the leaves. The stalk bears an immature flower enclosed in a curious covering. The membrane-like covering looks like a pointed stocking cap made of white tissue paper.
When the flower matures, the membrane splits revealing a beautiful rounded lavender flower cluster scented like an onion. After flowering, the foliage dies back and stays dormant during the hottest months. It generally emerges again in December.
Garlic can be harvested any time. The best time is in late spring as the green leafy growth begins to wither. Most folks dig the bulbs from the ground, clean the dirt off, remove the papery covering and separate the bulb into cloves before using. I also like to blenderize the green leaves in salad dressings during winter.
Some of my craftier friends make garlic braids. To harvest for a garlic braid, dig the plant as the foliage begins to wither in the next few weeks. Allow the plant to dry further for a week or two in a dark, well-ventilated place. Braid the dried garlic tops or leaves like rope to make an attractive strand of garlic bulbs.
Fall and winter are the preferred planting seasons. Buy a garlic bulb in the grocery store or mail order the larger and milder-tasting elephant garlic. Break the bulb into individual cloves. Plant each clove with the point up and the dried roots down. Garlic thrives in any sunny well-drained site. Once established, a garlic plot can feed several generations of gardeners.
Garlic probably originated in Asia. It is among the oldest cultivated plants. Its use was first recorded by the Sumerians about 5,000 years ago. From Asia, garlic found its way into almost every cuisine.
In addition to its culinary uses, garlic is a powerful disinfectant and antiseptic. Garlic has been used for centuries as a medicine and as a protective herb to ward off disease. The workers who built the Egyptian pyramids and soldiers in ancient Greece were given a daily ration of garlic to keep them strong, healthy and working.
Garlic was also believed to provide protection against evil spirits and vampires. In many countries, garlic cloves were hung around the necks of children or livestock to ward off evil spirits.

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