In the Garden – The Cult of Garlic Cloves

Are you beguiled by pyramid schemes, but loath to lose a fortune? Deanna Stanchfield has an offer for you.

Here is how it works: You send Ms. Stanchfield, 42, and her partner, Scott Jentink, 47, a nominal sum — say, $12. They mail you a half-dozen bulbs of garlic from their Swede Lake Farms and Global Garlic in Watertown, Minn., out past the golf course suburbs west of Minneapolis. They have the bulbs — 40,000 of them — curing in a hayloft, suspended from the rafters like bats in a cave.

If you bury each clove separately in October or November — think of them as seeds — you should be able to harvest 30 to 35 new garlic bulbs in July. Split those bulbs and plant the cloves next fall, and you will have 150 garlic bulbs by July of 2012. The following year will deliver 750 heads, and the summer after that, 3,750.

And the year after that? Now we’re getting into Bernard Madoff-style math. At this point, you can surely spare a few bulbs to start your neighbor’s garlic garden.

Still not sold? Six years ago, Mr. Jentink said, “we started with 14 pounds.” His planting this fall, he said, “will give us in theory, at least, a harvest of about 20,000 pounds.”

“All by hand,” Ms. Stanchfield added.

Growing nearly 50 varieties of rare and exotic garlic may one day pay off for Swede Lake Farms. For now, Mr. Jentink said, it is more of a calling. Maybe an obsession.

Indeed, garlic seems to inspire devotion for its many peculiarities. You sow it in fall, not spring. The plant often forms strange curling stalks, or “scapes,” with odd nodules called umbels. These rococo growths contain their own minicloves called bulbils, a term that sounds like a playground insult.

Most growers snip off the whole scape in June to channel the plant’s energy into developing a greater underground bulb, the botanical equivalent of grooming a castrato.

If tomatoes are the movie stars of the kitchen garden — flamboyant, lush, sexy — then garlic is the charismatic character actor. Think of a Martin Landau or a Tony Shalhoub: colorful and Old World, yet somehow familiar.

How Old World? At least 5,000 or 6,000 years, Ted Jordan Meredith writes in “The Complete Book of Garlic.” Allium sativum probably sprang up from a crescent of Central Asia, perhaps north and west of the Tian Shan mountain range.

Garlic, Mr. Meredith explains, makes a cameo in the Bible, the Koran and the histories of Herodotus. You can read about it in ancient Sanskrit, and it was buried in King Tut’s tomb.

Spending a few millenniums in humanity’s kitchen garden has done some strange things to the garlic plant. For eating purposes, the bulb’s the thing. So gardeners the world over have tinkered with the parts of the plant that don’t generate a hearty bundle of cloves. Soft-neck garlic — the type we buy at the grocery store — rarely produces a flowering stalk. And hard-neck garlic, which does bolt, almost never creates pollinated seed.

Garlic’s “seed,” for gardeners, is the clove itself. We’re not talking about the shrunken, aged and possibly irradiated nuggets that fill a slop trough at the store. The good stuff, Mr. Jentink said, comes from the small-scale growers who fill the booths at garlic festivals. (This weekend brings the North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival to Orange, Mass., near Amherst, and the Easton Garlic Fest to Easton, Pa. The Connecticut Garlic and Harvest Festival visits Bethlehem on Oct. 9 and 10.)

A prime hard-neck bulb may be almost three-and-a-half inches across — the size of a chickadee’s body — and contain 4 to 10 hefty cloves. Connoisseurs and taxonomists divide garlic into 8, 10 or even 12 types, like porcelain, rocambole, purple stripe, silverskin and artichoke. Each offers a wide bundle of attributes, including flavor, heat, clove number, clove size and shelf life.

The specific varieties within these groups carry names that would suit a bare-knuckled boxer. Ms. Stanchfield and Mr. Jentink, for instance, are raising hard-neck cultivars called Spanish Roja, Killarney Red and Russian Giant. Mr. Jentink is not just a grower, but a kind of latter-day Noah, herding the world’s garlic into the ark that is the Stanchfield family barn.

“Most of these varieties weren’t even available to us until Gorbachev took the wall down,” he said.

At the nonprofit Hilltop Hanover Farm in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., which is owned by Westchester County, Maryellen Sheehan has had particular luck with a rocambole cultivar called Ukrainian Red and a giant porcelain known as Music. “This season, I would say it’s almost baseball-sized,” she said.

A few years ago in New Hampshire, Ms. Sheehan, 33, experimented with a soft-neck variety called Inchelium Red. Her conclusion: Inchelium Red is afraid of the New England winter. (If there’s a Mason-Dixon line for success with soft-neck garlic, Mr. Jentink puts it close to Interstate 90, the east-west, coast-to-coast highway.)

Conversely, some hard-neck garlics — especially rocamboles — need a good chill before sprouting in spring. Garlic tends to adapt to a variety of climates and soils, Ms. Sheehan said. But if you lack an appetite for failure, she recommends buying seed garlic from nearby growers. If their bulbs are healthy, yours should be, too.

This fall, she plans to plant 24 rows of garlic — 5,000 plants — starting the second week of October. (She often orders extra bulb stock from Johnny’s Selected Seeds: 877-564-6697, or

“From the standpoint of an educational farm,” she said of Hilltop Hanover, “it’s the best group planting project possible.” Seeds the size of garlic cloves, she noted, can be sown by even the littlest of fingers.

A Tuesday evening in late July found Mr. Jentink and Ms. Stanchfield, the Minnesota farmers, tugging an old hay wagon full of German extra-hardy garlic down the long dirt driveway at Swede Lake Farms. A snowy egret sailed overhead like a runaway kite, leaving its red spindle, the evening sun, to fall back to earth.

Ms. Stanchfield’s parents were camped out in lawn chairs with a neighbor, cleaning the garlic for market while drinking whiskey sours from big plastic tumblers. The family is accustomed to doing the work of draft animals, Ms. Stanchfield said. But there was an urgency to the day’s labor.

A violent weekend storm had battered the fields with the kind of hailstones that could vindicate Chicken Little. “Some of them were bigger than our garlic,” Ms. Stanchfield said. Unless they were picked soon, she worried, tens of thousands of bulbs might molder in the sodden ground.

Ms. Stanchfield and Mr. Jentink climbed into a dusty white pickup truck and bounced along a rutted track to the garlic garden. She stopped on a rise above a small pond, where her brother-in-law trains hunting dogs.

“That whole field over there that’s covered with weeds?” Mr. Jentink said, pointing to an area 300 feet long and 80 feet wide. “That’s coming up tomorrow.”

Last year, Mr. Jentink planted this field from mid-October through the first week of December. He likes to cover each clove with three inches of dirt and then mulch each row, too. The idea is to allow the cloves to begin developing roots before the ground freezes. Plant too early, though, and shoots may emerge, then suffer through the winter like doomed polar explorers.

The biggest cloves tend to make the best seed stock and the most robust bulbs the next summer. Some of Swede Lake’s most painstaking work involves finding puny, near-wild varieties and “growing them out,” year after year, until marketable. (Their finished varieties can be ordered at 612-750-2553, or

Until he took up garlic growing, Mr. Jentink spent his days and nights planted in the seat of a city limo, squiring out-of-town bands from airport to arena. Now he is outside nine months a year, sometimes 18 hours a day. Whether it’s the vigorous fieldwork or a diet filled with garlic, “I haven’t been sick in, like, seven years,” he said. “Not even a cold.”

The garlic leaves, by comparison, were looking a little tired. Conventional wisdom has it that the bulbs should be dug up when half their leaves have browned. Some experts say two-thirds.

“I don’t believe in any of that,” Mr. Jentink said. He relies instead on the appearance of a trial bulb. If the cloves appear well-differentiated and the head is still tightly wrapped in its outer skin, the garlic is ready.

Mr. Jentink bit into the soil with his spade and lifted out a giant bulb. A fright wig of thick white roots hung off the bottom. This head was Krasnodar Red, an uncommon variety that a University of Minnesota soil scientist had carried back from a Russian farmers’ market near the Black Sea.

Mr. Jentink shook off a caking of coffee-colored dirt and paused to admire the bulb. “People at the market will come up and they’ll be holding this beautiful bulb of garlic,” he said. “And they’re like, ‘What’s the difference between this and the regular stuff?’ And I’m like, ‘This is the regular stuff. This is what garlic should be.’ ”

In the Garden – The Cult of Garlic Cloves –

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