Zen and the Art of Garlic Growing

Pat Piper, a playful and nurturing gardener, drew an x on a clove of elephant garlic that he planted a year ago in the garlic-friendly soils near the Anne Arundel-Calvert County line."Have a nice journey. See you in eight or nine months," he said to the clove. Then he covered it with a few inches of soil.In July, on his knees in the dirt, Piper came across the x on one of the 4,000 full-grown garlic bulbs he harvested. No cameras or witnesses were on hand to attest to what happened next. But given garlic's reputation for thousands of years as one of the world's magic potions, we must take Pat Piper at his word. When he lifted the fat, perfect bulb from the ground by its dried brown tendrils -- the very bulb he had whispered to nine months before -- dark clouds melted and a soothing summer sun took over the sky."You always wonder when you put it in the ground who will have the more interesting journey in the coming months, the garlic or the grower," said Piper. "This is a real Zen thing.""Do not eat garlic or onions, for their smell will reveal that you are a peasant." -Ð Cervantes in Don Quixote, 1614Garlic's reputation has alternately plummeted and soared in the 5,000 years since its use was noted in Sanskrit records. In many centuries, aristocrats reviled it as the spice of peasants. As recently as this century, Queen Elizabeth characterized it as vulgar.Yet even the upper classes have taken note over the years of garlic's curative powers for everything from athlete's foot to the plague. In some cultures, garlic has been an aphrodisiac, passed between lovers to induce lust. In 16th century Europe, it was kept on hand more as a medicine than a food and sent on exploring ships as a remedy for seasickness.Whether it's because peasant food is in vogue today or because it really does heal, garlic is back in style once more.These days, you can travel like a Dead Head to garlic festivals across the country from Washington D.C. to the granddaddy of them all in the U.S., the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, Calif., the center of the garlic-growing world.Yet in the garlic celebration department, we're novices compared to festivals in African and European countries. In southern France, a garlic mayonnaise festival has taken place since the Middle Ages. (Garlic mayonnaise is served with fresh bread, newly harvested vegetables and red wine.)In California, you can visit trendy restaurants with names like "The Stinking Rose," one of garlic's less flattering aliases. Across America you can eat garlic chicken, garlic soup and a host of garlic dishes. (If you're traveling in Central America, you must order garlic snapper.)You can join the national Garlic Lovers Society, which is based in Gaithersburg. You can spend weeks reading garlic books, among them A Clove of Garlic, an excellent compilation of recipes and history in a coffee-table format by Katy Holder and Gail Duff.On the Internet, you can find out more about garlic than you would need to know in a lifetime. (Try www.garliclovers.com.)But we suggest less time on the computer and the couch and more time in the dirt -- growing your own garlic, like Pat Piper. It's easy, but you have to get busy, because garlic needs to be planted by Nov. 1 or not too far afterward if you intend to enjoy a crop next year.Vampires won't suck blood tinged with garlic. To prevent the dead from becoming vampires, place wreaths of garlic on their graves. -Ð Vampire legendsOf course, you needn't grow 4,000 bulbs like Pat Piper, who, it is safe to say, has been bitten to the bone by the garlic bug, if not a vampire.Piper, 44, of Annapolis, has traveled a path considerably more eventful than his x-marked clove. He is a former producer for Larry King, the CNN television and radio host. A few years ago, he said adios to the pressurized world of broadcasting and moved to the shore of Chesapeake Bay to write.He has a book coming out in January, co-authored with King, called Future Talks. He is working with King on another book called Powerful Prayers, a secular treatment of the use of prayer by famous people. (The day before Piper met us at his garlic field, he interviewed Jimmy Carter about prayerful times in the former president's life.)Despite his real-world successes, Piper devotes considerable energy to his burgeoning garlic business. (Last year, he sold much of his crop to gourmet grocers in the region.)It is said that the shores of Chesapeake Bay provide perfect inspiration for writers. But as Piper is finding out, Bay country can also be a nurturing place for garlic farmers.The climate is right and the sandy loam soil that has sprouted so much tobacco over the centuries turns out to be more than suitable for garlic. (Garlic likes a pH factor of 6.5-7; if you need to be perfect, you may want to add some lime.) In A Clove of Garlic, Holder and Duff give this advice: "Ideally, garlic needs a sunny spot in a light, sandy, well-drained soil enriched with manure or compost. It can be planted in the vegetable patch, in the herb garden or among flowers." Garlic grows so easily that you can keep one in the flower pot on your porch. Raised beds in postage-stamp urban yards also work well.Or, if you're devoted like Pat Piper, you can secure an acre of the rolling earth of Southern Maryland.When Satan departed the Garden of Eden, garlic sprouted from the ground where his left foot rested and onions from the ground beneath his right foot. -Ð Islamic LegendTo get growing, you need the garlic. Piper is partial to elephant garlic, a mild, meaty variety that sprouts distinctive pink flowers on its three-foot stalk and grows bulbs the size of oranges. Garlic is part of the lily family and has as its cousins onions, leeks, scallions and chives.There are many types of garlic, but so as not to risk confusion, you may wish to proceed to the grocery or a farmer's market as soon as you've finished reading and start with what they sell. It is probably a hearty and good-flavored bulb grown in Gilroy.Whether you're planting lots or a little, you put it several inches deep, at least eight inches apart with a foot or so between rows. (That's so you can have room to get in and weed, which you absolutely must do next spring.) It's a good idea to cover it in leaves or straw as a layer of protection for winter.This is key: You must position the clove in the ground, not just drop it. Place the bottom down -- that's the flat, roughened root edge -- and the pointed spout to the top. A friend of Piper's in New Hampshire telephoned this summer to complain that the garlic Piper had given him last fall was worthless.When he dug down at Piper's suggestion, the friend found the garlic growing downward "toward China." The would-be grower -- from the state that we trust to open the presidential primary season -- had planted his cloves upside down. Garlic, like most vegetables, grows normally without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Piper uses neither, but works his soil and boosts it with some natural additives. "You want the soil loose and full of -- in technical terms -- stuff," he says.Here's the key: You need to plant your garlic very, very soon, several weeks before the first frost, so the sprouts can become sufficiently hearty to endure snow and ice."When you start to see Canada geese flying over head, you need to get busy," Piper says."Everybody knows the odor of garlic except the one who has eaten it and wonders why everybody turns away from him." -Ð Alexandre Dumas, 1873The rest is easy. You must, of course, give your garlic support and encouragement, which is best done by visits during which you yank out weeds competing for nutrients in the soil.Like a baby, garlic takes nine months or so. There's a bonus along the way: edible flowers that enliven salads about the time spring lettuce sprouts. Don't get confused when the stalk turn brown and falls over; the garlic bulbs are just gestating. When the stalks are 80 percent brown, in late June or July, pull it up and dry it for a few weeks, ideally in a shed, a barn or a place with light and ventilation.Save some bulbs for planting.Then it's time to eat.As far as Piper is concerned -- us, too -- it makes no difference whether you eat garlic at a restaurant, find a recipe for it or make one up. Garlic flows so harmoniously with so many foods that figuring out how to eat it is no major chore.Garlic-eaters may have been pilloried through history -- but they've eaten well: * In 600 B.C., the Chinese Shih Ching, or Book of Songs, told of spring festival where lambs were sacrificed, seasoned with garlic, and barbecued over beds of southern wood;* In the 12th century, cooks recommended using garlic sauce on goose and any tough fowl;* In 1822, the Cook's Oracle advised making "Spaniard's Garlick Gravy" by cooking garlic with beef or veal, with salt and pepper and small pieces of ham. Add flour, herbs, lemon and more garlic, cook again. Let sit. Remove fat. Strain. Left behind is great gravy, like that of an old Spaniard who lived in a house called Hampstead Heath.* Africans use garlic to make berbere, a devilishly hot paste. (Try it by drying hot red peppers; cayenne will do. Pound them into a mortar and mix with garlic, ginger, onions, salt and your secret spices to make a thick, red puree.) * In her 17th century The Compleat Cook, Rebecca Price recommended an all-purpose tonic made by heating white wine, garlic and red sage and then adding honey.Then again, you may just want to kill critters with your garlic. Wandering on the Internet, we learned of an obscure scientific experiment in Norway that consisted of giving leeches Guinness Stout, garlic and sour cream. (Such trivia is yet another reason to skip the Internet and head to your garden.)To finish the story, clinical trials were conducted, believe it or not, by two Nobel Prize-winning biologists, Anders Baerheim and Hogne Sandvik. Their conclusion: "Beer disorganized the leeches' behavior; skin contact with garlic proved lethal and the effect of sour cream was uncertain."What is certain is that if you don't get your garlic planted, you won't be conducting any experiments next summer. You won't be eating garlic goose. And, if the lore is to be believed, you may be attacked by a vampire.Your relationship to your growing garlic is your business. You may or may not be as committed as Pat Piper, who is proving that besides being easy to grow, garlic is rewarding in many ways."It was just wonderful to come out here and be with my garlic. It was a real comfort," he said, preparing for his new crop.What Ails You?Through history, garlic was credited with preventing these ailments: Athlete's Foot Cancer Cardiovascular ills Common cold Dandruff Diarrhea Earaches Flu Impotence Intestinal parasites "Madness" Mosquito bites Prostate problems Seasickness Toothaches

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