A small hawk swoops down and perches on a tree limb outside of Lyn Lang’s sun porch in Richland, Allegheny County.
Wearing beautiful floral print garden clogs bought on a trip to London at the Chelsea Flower Show, the 67 year-old Penn State master gardener talks about her long love affair with garlic. She had ordered a garlic collection from what was then the newly formed Shepherd’s Garden Seeds.
“I decided I wanted to dabble with trying other varieties, keeping them separate and seeing what the differences were,” she says.
Filleree Farm was the next company she ordered from as they were one of the few at the time to offer organic garlic. She still orders from them today along with Enon Valley Garlic and Seeds of Change.
In 1983, she moved here with husband Denny and shortly afterward began the garden, eventually expanding it to 40 feet by 55 feet.
There are two basic families of garlic, she says. One is softneck, the other is hardneck.
“The biggest difference is the softneck is braidable,” she says. They have a reputations for store better too, but in some cases aren’t as hardy.
Besides the two main types, there are subcategories of garlic like artichoke, creole, porcelain, rocambole, silverskin, purple stripe.
“The artichoke garlics, which are also softneck, many of them grow very well here,” Lang says.
“There are also hardnecks with smaller bulbs that store really well,” Lang says.
One example is ‘Pescadero Red,’ a creole variety. The small cloves are pinkish purple, are easy to peal for use in the kitchen and will store all year.
There’s no reason to become overwhelmed with choices though. Gardeners just need to know that the garlic they plant is hardy and will grow well in their climate. Then they can experiment with different cultivars, tastes, sizes and heat levels.
That’s just what Lang does, growing 27 different varieties for a reason.
“They do have different flavors,” she says. “It’s hard to decide what to give up so I grow small quantities of each.”
Some get weeded out if they don’t perform well and she can’t resist trying something new each season. Last year she bought one called ‘Iowa,’ named for the state she grew up in. She also found ‘Youghiogheny Purple’ from Washington State.
“Now it’s come back to Pennsylvania,” Lang says with a smile.
She plants most of her crops using moon phases as a guide — garlic is planted in the dark of the moon which is Oct. 19 this year.
It depends on the weather though, she says. “If the soil is too wet, you don’t want to be working in it; if it’s pouring rain you can’t plant. You can plant all the way up until the ground freezes.”
Lang prepares planting beds by working in 1 or 2 inches of compost along with a slow release organic fertilizer. Once or twice during spring while the garlic is growing rapidly, she also will apply a water soluble organic fertilizer like fish emulsion.
It’s important to start with garlic found locally at nurseries, farmers markets or online. Enon Valley Garlic Farm sells at markets and events around the area. It’s not a good idea to simply buy garlic from the supermarket, as it might not be hardy or could be treated with something to retard sprouting.
The bulbs are separated into cloves on planting day. The bigger the clove, the bigger the resulting head should be.
“I plant them 6 to 7 inches apart, she says. “Two inches from the soil surface to the top of the clove.”
Lang says mulching is important too. “That’s the best thing you can do, put a good layer of straw on them and I don’t take that off in the spring. It’s a great weed control.”
For first time growers she recommends ‘German Extra Hardy,’ ‘Music’ or ‘Zemo.’
“Those are all porcelain hardneck garlics that grow really well in this area and are just a good overall garlic,” Lang says.
For flavor she loves ‘Spanish Roja’ and ‘Carpathian.’
When asked which varieties must be planted every year, she doesn’t miss a beat, “all of them,” she replies, laughing. “I wouldn’t want to give up ‘Asian Tempest.’ I think it’s the best for garlic bread. It really has a zing to it, it’s really intense and fiery.”
In early summer, the hardneck varieties will form a seed head called a scape. It needs to be removed so the plant focuses on making big bulbs. They are edible and a delicacy in the kitchen.
“I don’t consider myself a great cook,” she says, but I just enjoy eating garlic and showing others how to grow it.”
Her favorite way to enjoy the seed heads is by making garlic scape pesto. “It’s a mixture of garlic scapes chopped up in a food processor, olive oil, Parmesan or Romano cheese, lemon or lime juice and if you want to guild the lily, toast some pine nuts or other types of nuts,” Lang says.
The bulbs are harvested in mid-July when about half of the foliage turns brown. She will start pulling a bulb or two early to see how they look. It’s better to get them out of the ground sooner than later as the cloves can split away from the tight papery sheath and won’t store as well. She cures the bulbs for a few weeks by bundling and hanging them in the garage.
“We actually put fans on them since our summers tend to be pretty humid,” she says. “You want to dry your allium crops as quickly as possible.”
They are stored in the basement in labelled brown paper bags after the stems and roots are trimmed. She leaves about an inch of stem on the hardnecks in hopes of making them last as long as possible through the winter.
She fantasizes about getting garlic lovers together to rate each type she grows.
“I’ve always wanted to have a tasting, where you taste them all raw, then all roasted and taste them all sautéed, but I don’t know who I would get to do that with me.”
Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a website operated by 535Media, LLC. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or email@example.com. See other stories, videos, blogs, tips and more at everybodygardens.com.
This story highlights Enon Valley Garlic and explains how to use garlic in the kitchen.