Posted on: October 2, 2015 | Written By: Doug Oster |
The unmistakable, intense aroma of garlic hits one squarely in the face when Ron Stidmon opens the door to his storage barn.
The Beaver County garlic farmer is storing the nearly 50 varieties he sells in large bushel baskets filled with dry heads. They are beautiful, some with deep purple striping, others a creamy white, their roots neatly trimmed close to the bottom of the head.
For garlic lovers, the fragrance is intoxicating, for others, not so much. I’m simply in heaven.
His Enon Valley Garlic Co., in its namesake community, has been growing garlic for 12 seasons.
When the 66-year-old farmer bought this organic farm, the specialty was scented geraniums and many unusual herbs. They all succumbed to a bitter winter freeze when the heating system failed in a greenhouse. At that point, it was time for him to rethink his mission. Stidmon thought long and hard about what he wanted to grow naturally on his 90 acres and settled on planting garlic cloves.
“Garlic is sort of off season,” he says. “You do most of your work in the fall and in the early spring.”
He thought garlic wasn’t being marketed correctly. Nowadays, we’re all aware of the multitude of different apples or tomatoes on the market. He thought the same should be true of garlic.
Stidmon pledges to stop his beloved obsession at 50 garlic varieties, his goal when starting the business. But like anyone under the spell of the bulb, it will be interesting to see if that’s actually the end to the varieties he offers.
Stidmon is like an evangelist when he speaks about the health benefits of garlic.
“I look at it almost as a religious experience,” he says about spreading the word. He enjoys a few raw cloves a day, which he says has got his cholesterol and blood pressure under control.
“Korean Red” is one of his favorites to enjoy sans cooking, “It has a flavor all its own,” he says. “Bogatyr,” on the other hand, is one of the hottest. And “Georgian Fire” will actually bring tears to your eyes, he says, and is better for the fry pan, at least in his case.
Stidmon stresses adding finely chopped garlic during the end of the cooking process to get the most out of the cloves. When garlic is crushed or chopped it releases an enzyme called alliinase, which, in turn, acts on alliin, converting it into allicin, the ingredient he says makes garlic so healthy. Heating garlic can actually make the alliinase inactive, he says.
Cooking garlic presents different flavor profiles, depending on how it’s prepared. Roasted garlic can be sweet, cloves can be caramelized and so on. “This is not just something to eat because it tastes good,” he says. “If you’re going to eat it, eat it so you get the benefits. It’s medicine.”
Garlic is pretty easy to grow, Stidmon says. Choose locally grown heads — from a farmer’s market, nursery or garlic farm — that are good for our region.
In October, after the first killing frost, he splits the heads up in cloves, using the biggest and firmest cloves for planting. Another requirement before planting is lack of rain for five days prior to getting the cloves in the ground. The soil should be fertile and well drained, if it’s not, add a wheelbarrow of compost. They are planted several inches deep, about 4 inches apart and should be mulched with at least an inch and a half of organic matter. Shredded leaves, wood chips or straw will work fine and act as a blanket for the bulbs forming roots below. Stidmon also says to plant in blocks as opposed to rows, alternating the cloves in a grid pattern.
Part of his message to customers is that garlic is a sustainable crop. Grow some, eat some, save some and plant it, he says. “I don’t want people coming back to me for more garlic unless they are looking for a different variety,” he says.
Stidmon advises new growers to start with three different varieties to ensure success. He recommends making a map of the garden to identify the garlic next spring, as you never know what plant markers might look like after a long winter. “Have fun,” he says. “Don’t look at it like it’s work. Make it like a hobby.”
This garlic lover doesn’t mince words when talking about garden garlic. “If you don’t grow garlic, then you’re going to be stuck with the crap they have in the store. Once you start eating this garlic, you’re not going to be content with that garlic.”
It’s his passion not only to grow and sell garlic, but to educate anyone who will listen about the benefits the cloves hold.
“I didn’t do it to get rich, and I’m never going to get rich doing it. I did it because I think it’s a nice thing to do and it was going to be a lot of fun. If I wasn’t having fun, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
In Millvale, Tom Walker’s large garden sits atop a hill overlooking the city. The 63-year-old graphic artist is sitting in the warm sun in the shadow of sunflowers overlooking hundreds of ripe San Marzano tomatoes. He’s already put up 21 quarts, and it looks like he’ll be canning lots more.
He grows more than 1,200 heads of garlic each season, which he stores, gives away and sells. For three decades, he’s been a garlic fanatic. His love of garlic started with a friend giving him some heads from the garden and then his wife buying some at a stand in the Strip District. From there, he’s amassed a collection of 13 types he plants annually.
He echoes Stidmon’s thoughts on sustainability. Walker saves cloves from what he harvests for planting and warns not to try and grow garlic from the supermarket. “They are usually sprayed with something to prevent sprouting,” he says. Many times, supermarket garlic isn’t hardy either.
Walker’s cloves go in around Columbus Day, and he tries to plant by the new moon. This year, that falls on Oct. 13. “They say that’s when you plant crops below the ground,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any science to it.” And there’s certainly no science to the depth he plants the cloves. As he holds a finger up, points to the knuckle and says with a chuckle: “This deep.”
Walker has an interesting way to keep his planting beds fertile. He uses a cover crop like winter rye, growing the thick bladed grass during the season, then tilling it in. The cover crop will decompose, acting like a green manure. Then, after planting his cloves, he mulches with 3 to 4 inches of compost. In the spring, another thin layer of compost is added, and then straw once the plants emerge.
• First, the greens push through when the crocus bloom and can lightly be harvested.
• Next, is a seed head called a scape. Some types of garlic are grown specifically for the quality of scapes they produce. The scape forms on hardneck varieties which are probably the most popular for growing in cold climates. The scape must be removed so the plant uses all its energy to make big heads. Walker cuts his early while they are tender and gives them to a local restaurant to use. The scape is coveted as a seasonal treat by chefs. Home gardeners also can use them roasted, in soups, to make pesto and many other ways.
• If the scape is left in the garden, it has enough energy to form the seeds called bulbets, even though no longer attached to the plant. They are a clone of the larger head below ground and if planted would eventually make a full-sized head, but it would take years. They are better off used to snack on in the garden.
• The heads are pulled from the garden sometime in July when more than 50 percent of the foliage turns brown.
Walker will pull a few early to see if they are ready with a nice tight skin. Wait too long, and they will split and won’t store as long. He loves “Chilean Silver,” a softneck variety, and the spicy hardneck favored by Stidmon, called “‘Bogatyr.”
Walker cuts the stems to about 5 inches after harvest, which he feels makes the garlic last longer during the winter. Since it’s been decades since he’s used store-bought garlic, his technique seems to be working.
He recently sent a box of garlic to friends using the greens as packing material. When questioned about the odor and contents by the post office clerk, Walker explained he was sending a care package of garlic to former neighbors. “Oh I thought I smelled something,” the clerk said, surprised. “I don’t think I ever remember anybody bringing garlic into the post office.”
Walker uses the same scientific method for cooking that he does for planting. Here’s his recipe for fresh pasta sauce. Saute a head of chopped garlic in olive oil and add skinned roma tomatoes, hot peppers, onions and throw them all in a pan. Doesn’t get much easier than that.
One of the things he loves about garlic is being able to enjoy it year-round as the taste changes as the heads age. “Anybody can grow a garden,” Walker says, “but to do it right, you want to preserve what you grow to be enjoyed during the winter. And that’s what I like about garlic.”
Artist Johno Prascak and his wife, Maria, have an eclectic garden on the South Side Slopes. A giant metal praying mantis lurks over the long, raised beds filled with compost. He’s painted a couple pieces featuring his beloved garlic.
Prascak was introduced to the soft neck “New York White” from his late father, and it remains his No. 1 variety. He is experimenting with other garlics, too, just to explore the different flavors.
He suffered with ulcerative colitis and a child and a holistic doctor recommended eating a kernel (clove) of garlic once a week. Although he had trouble eating lots of other foods, he says, smiling, “the garlic always seemed to agree with me.”
Every year, he plants 200 to 250 cloves, and they will last the couple almost 10 months after harvest.
Like Stidmon and Walker, he’s a fan of eating cloves raw.
“I haven’t been on any medication in 30-plus years, he says with a wide grin.
“I attribute that to a decent lifestyle, but also the garlic. Every time I take it, ‘I say I don’t have to take medicine,’” he says, laughing. “I totally enjoy it and embrace it.”
While reading about the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, Prascak stumbled onto their trademark saying, “Eat, Drink and Stink.”
Prascak wanted a phrase of his own, and, when he found himself without his most treasured ingredient for cooking, came up with: “It would be a sad world without garlic.”
It’s painted on a cupboard door in the couple’s kitchen.
“I guess as we’ve grown together, if only one of us just stinks, it’s going to be difficult, so we both stink together,” he says with a laugh. “I’m glad Maria loves garlic.”
When asked about that unique fragrance, he smiles.
“Oh, ambrosia,” he says.