“You can never have enough garlic. With enough garlic, you can eat The New York Times.”
That quote from the late CBS News correspondent Morley Safer is music to the ears for those of us who worship at the altar of the stinking rose. If you happen to be a garlic lover who lives in the Hudson Valley, you’re doubly blessed. The region has one of the world’s best garlic festivals (the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival—returning to Saugerties this October 1–2), plenty of markets and farm stands selling a wide range of garlic varieties, and ideal conditions for growing your own (as long as you select hardy varieties that can withstand our less than balmy winters).
Garlic lovers will find it fitting that garlic originated in the Celestial Mountains of Central Asia over 10,000 years ago. It was spread along the Silk Road by nomads, ferried to Europe by the Crusaders and brought to America on the ships of Christopher Columbus. Garlic is a member of the lily family and there are over 200 varieties. Prized for its health benefits for centuries, garlic is credited with curing everything from the common cold to cancer. Around 2,500 B.C., enslaved pyramid builders were even fed garlic by Egyptian pharaohs to boost their strength while constructing the Great Pyramids.
Garlic is either hardnecks or softnecks. Most of those grown in the Hudson Valley are hardnecks since they require exposure to cold weather but two softneck varieties, New York White and Early Red Italian, can be grown here, too. Softnecks last longer than hardnecks and are good for braiding. Hardnecks have woody central stalks and curly green shoots known as scapes. Scapes need to be cut off when they start to curl so the energy is directed to growing the bulb. (Don’t throw them away; they make great pesto and add a mild garlic zing to compound butters, hummus, and stir fries.)
Growing your own garlic isn’t hard. (I’ve done it and I have a thumb that’s brownish green at best.) Suzanne Kelly of Green Owl Farm in Rhinebeck grows 12,500 bulbs on a quarter acre including four hardneck varieties: German White, Hungarian Purple, Spanish Roja, and Chesnok Red.
Garlic seeds are just garlic cloves but don’t plant cloves from the grocery store because they’ve probably been irradiated to prevent sprouting. (Don’t worry, irradiating food doesn’t make it radioactive; the radiant energy passes through the garlic and kills harmful bacteria and parasites.) Planting large cloves yields large bulbs and garlic likes rich, well-drained, soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. If you’re not sure about your soil, the Cornell Cooperative Extension can test it. Just drop off a soil sample at the Duchess County Farm and Home Center in Millbrook, tell them you’re planting garlic, pay $15, and within 7–14 days, they will tell you which nutrients are in your soil and what you need to add as fertilizer. For more information, go to ccedutchess.org.
Prior to planting, Kelly soaks her cloves in a kelp emulsion overnight and then in Oxidate, an organic bactericide/fungicide for about an hour. She’s found that both help the garlic to root more quickly. She plants them six inches apart between mid-October and November 1 and harvests the following July.
If you’re thinking of growing your own garlic, the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival has a wide selection of garlic varieties in addition to garlicky treats like fries, scampi, hummus, chicken wings, pizza, kielbasa, and, if you must, ice cream. While the snacks are delicious, the real treat is the farmers who both sell garlic and impart their vast knowledge on varieties and growing tips.
As Manhattan’s Ritz-Carlton head chef Louis Diat once declared, “Without garlic, I simply would not care to live.” Amen.