My Love Affair With Garlic
By Cam Mather
At Sunflower Farm, we grow garlic. Lots of it! We harvested about 4,000 heads this year and it looks amazing. We’ve done a few tours here and heard from a few different people lately that their garlic didn’t do very well this year. I made a few suggestions of things that might have gone wrong, but my garlic has grown so well for so many years I just take it for granted that its easy to grow.
It wasn’t always this way. When I first attempted to grow garlic I kept planting it in the spring and wondered why I wasn’t ending up with very large heads. Once I finally realized that I needed to plant it in the fall, the garlic world changed for me. Planting a crop in October and November is always counter intuitive to me because usually that’s when we are harvesting crops. The weather can be pretty cold and miserable for planting, especially when you plant in the volume that we do. I try to pick a nice day or two for planting my garlic, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Garlic is insanely time consuming to grow and process to the point of being a stupid way to try and make money. But try we do. After we plant it in the fall it starts growing and then slows down once the ground freezes. I’m always happy when we have a good blanket of snow covering it to protect it from the cold of winter. The garlic is always the first green thing in the garden and often pokes up through the last remnants of snow. Throughout the spring we need to constantly weed and water it. Then in June the garlic plant sends up a scape which is a large seed head. We cut these scapes off since we want all the energy to go into the bulb. The scapes are at just the right height so that you have to bend over ever so slightly to cut them, so the job of scape cutting is always hard on our backs. I do a lot of stretching in between rows.
We start harvesting about the second week in July. I rubbed as much of the excess soil off each head as I harvested it. Then Michelle bundled about 14 garlic plants together and used the outside leaves to wrap around them and keep them bundled. We hung it to dry in our (vacant) horse barn on racks that I built expressly for this purpose.
After a few weeks the bulbs are dry and we start cleaning it. This generally involves me cutting off the roots and taking off the first outside layer of skin which will still have some soil on it. Then Michelle peels one or two more layers back and then cleans the head with a soft toothbrush. We’re extra careful to clean the soil out of the root area because that’s where moisture is most likely to be found which will negatively impact how well it will store throughout the winter. During garlic cleaning season we sit on the front porch for hours and it’s like a little production line. It doesn’t matter how many years we’ve been cleaning garlic – we can only squeeze so much more efficiency out of the process. Like most important things, it just takes time.
So we’re selling our garlic for $8/pound (volume discounts available). This is a higher price than you would pay for imported garlic from China that is available in most Canadian grocery stores. The garlic growers in China have access to abundant cheap labor. If you’ve ever watched the documentary “Manufactured Landscapes” you would think twice about buying anything made or grown in China, in terms of how workers are treated and the lives that an average Chinese worker lives. We grow our garlic organically and fertilize it with well-composted horse manure. In China “humanure” is often used on food crops and the quality of the water used to irrigate it is questionable. We water only with rainwater and our wonderful clean well water through our drip irrigation system. Plus we sell it locally so there’s a small carbon footprint.
I can’t compete with the Chinese garlic on price, but the quality of our garlic is far superior to the Chinese. Garlic has many health enhancing properties such as its antibacterial properties to its ability to lower blood pressure, reduce bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol. I think it makes sense to eat the best you can get.
The quality of our garlic is outstanding and while garlic doesn’t necessarily constitute a large part of a meal by volume, it can certainly have a big impact on taste. We’re at a stage where if a recipe calls for 2 cloves of garlic we use two heads (16 to 20 cloves). We’re finding it’s a great way to reduce things like salt in our diet. One of our favourite ways of eating broccoli is to stir fry it with lots of garlic and some olive oil, which results in wonderfully flavourful, crunchy and healthy broccoli. This is the best way to preserve its nutritional benefits and it really tastes wonderful when done this way.
Now all we have to do is figure out to sell 4,000 heads. Every year the amount I plant increases, since I’m just using my own garlic for seed. Every year we set aside any garlic that isn’t prime for selling and we cook with it ourselves or we plant it. Every year I plant more and we end up with more to sell. I’ll never get rich growing garlic. Still, there’s something about growing food. I remember the year I was selling organic corn to a CSA near Kingston. Michelle and I would be out in the garden, early in the morning, picking dozens of ears of corn. Dragging the wagon full of corn out of the garden and knowing that people were going to sit down and enjoy my organically-grown corn for dinner was just about one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had. Later that fall, as I was giving a tour of our off-grid home, someone in the group mentioned that they had the best corn of their life that summer. Turns out he belonged to the CSA that I was supplying and it was MY corn he was raving about! I might not get rich but at least I still have a day job and people are enjoying my book “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook” that we published last spring.
Apparently our garlic-rich diet is working. Michelle and I just had health tests done for insurance purposes and we both have great cholesterol levels and healthy blood pressure. Apparently substituting a “head” for a “clove” is working. Also, with 4,000 heads of garlic in the house, we have never, ever, seen a vampire on the premises. When you consider how many books or movies involve vampires these days, you would expect the likelihood of coming into regular contact with one would be very high.
People rave about our garlic, so it makes the hours spent growing and processing it worthwhile. Know anyone with high blood pressure? I’m taking orders for organic garlic. Big volumes preferred!