Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Garlic myths

I've been researching the commercial farming of garlic for a story I'm working on. Now, I understand that larger-scale farming works differently from the small scale of my backyard garden, but I can't reconcile the garlic-growing advice with my experience.

According to the experts, garlic is this finicky, fragile thing that requires: full sun, huge amounts of fertilizer, constant weeding, and bubble wrap when harvesting. Above all, according to some experts, it should never, ever, on pain of something really awful, be pulled out of the ground instead of gently dug up. The scapes (stems) must be removed to maximize the bulb size (forsaking the edible and plantable bulbils at the end of the scapes). Oh, and it must, to avoid getting some sort of mutant plant, be grown from cloves, and not the bulbils that grow at the top of the stem.

I know that anecdotal evidence isn't science, but here's my rebuttal:

The bottom bulb is a special early variety that we decided to stop growing a couple years ago, but we keep finding a few that we missed from prior years, sort of like a weed with benefits.

The top bulb is the variety we prefer to grow. It's on a cutting mat, with a 1" grid, so you can see it's about 1 1/4" to 1 1/2" in each direction, which is a pretty average size for this particular variety which only produces four cloves per head.

It grew in partial shade, no fertilizer, no weeding, the scape was left intact, and it was pulled from the ground. Worse than that, it grew from a bulbil that fell in the middle of the main path of the garden a few years ago, and it grew on top of landscape fabric, in the inch or so of dirt and decomposed mulch that accumulated there.

I have one patch of garlic that was started with some bulbils tossed into the corner of the garden, and that has produced admittedly small heads of garlic for probably close to ten years now. It does take longer to grow garlic to a good size from the bulbils, but the end product is indistinguishable from the clove-grown plants. There are weeds and brambles and even a small sapling in the middle of this patch. It's in dappled shade. No fertilizer in all this time, other than perhaps some leaf mulch from leaves that fell from the tree obscuring the sunshine.

One summer, about five years ago, I decided to clear out that corner patch to use it for something else, and I spent weeks digging out every single bulb I could find. The next spring, thousands (not exaggerating here, for once) of sprouts emerged from the cloves I missed. I figured that corner was meant to be a garlic patch, and now I just leave it alone: no weeding, no fussing, just a summer harvest of dozens of small (usually just two cloves instead of four) heads.

It makes me wonder, though, how much of farming is based on agricultural science and how much is based on handed-down wisdom that may not be wise at all.

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