WHY IS B.C. GARLIC SO DARN GOOD!
Garlic has been part of the staple diet of people literally around the world for millennia – and we eat lots of it – around 80 billion pounds of home and commercial production, which works out to 10 pounds per person per year across the planet. Over the centuries, many different types of garlic have naturally hybridized creating a plethora of varieties, each one having adapted to growing conditions and light. Garlic, being an allium (related to leeks and onions) is light-sensitive, (phototropic) and the amount of light controls when it grows, and how long it takes to mature.
There are two basic types of garlic – softneck and hardneck – the difference being that hardneck has a central shaft growing up the centre of the plant that remains rigid, with cloves forming around it, while softneck varieties don’t have that central shaft.
Without going into too much detail, softneck varieties produce better in warmer countries, while hardneck is hardier and generally performs better in northern areas. Varieties you may recognize like Russian Red, White Music, etc. are traditionally found in Northern Europe, Canada and as far south as southern Europe where it is grown at higher elevations. You will also find hardneck growing in Chile.
Not that we don’t grow softneck varieties in Canada – some varieties have naturalized to colder weather.
And don’t put too much into the names – many regions, especially France, have actually trademarked some varietal names, and if you grow them outside the region, you can’t use that name – the same protectionism you would find with other products – you can only call liquor from Agave as Tequilla if its produced in just 4 states in Mexico, or ‘Parmesan like cheese’ if it’s not grown in Italy. Very often, growers will just make up names if they don’t know for sure what variety they are actually growing.
A vast majority of the world’s garlic is grown in China – 80% of all the commercial production. In more southern areas, like China or Mexico, softneck varieties take about 6 months to grow and then produce small cloves, usually in two or even three layers – those pesky little cloves that often seem to be more trouble than they are worth – but production values are high when measured by the pound.
There are also many commercial production methods. One farmer can grow 100 hectares of garlic with virtually no labour. There are machines that literally shoot garlic into the soil, which is then irrigated with chemical or organic solutions mixed into the water, machine harvested and sized, and the only labour required is to cull out heads that have been damaged and close up the boxes. That’s not the way we do it in B.C.
Each clove in a head of garlic is a seed. Each clove is planted several inches from each other, and several inches deep in the soil, and very importantly, top up and bottom down. Because of our climate, garlic is traditionally planted in early to mid-October in the Interior and a few weeks later on the Coast. That’s not to say it can’t be planted early in the spring, but production will be smaller. We have to plant it that early before the ground freezes. During the long winter, and under snow for many months in the Interior, it develops a great root structure extending 3 or 4 inches deeper into the soil. The green plants typically emerge during March, and if there’s a heavy snowpack, they can sometimes push themselves up through lingering snow. Even several inches down each clove can tell when the days are getting longer and starts its growth cycle and as the soil warms it speeds up quickly. Garlic doesn’t actually start to produce its bulb until 6 weeks before it starts to mature and then die. Hardneck varieties produce a scape, where the center stalk shoots up and creates the beginning of a flower.
Hardneck garlic, perhaps attuned to colder climates has 3 ways to reproduce itself. The scape which starts out curly straightens out, reaching for the sun and forms a flower which in turn produces dozens if not over a hundred seeds. Below the flower, at the top of the stalk, there is also a circle of up to 15 very small cloves. This seed head is four to five feet above the ground. If you don’t cut the stalk off when it starts off as a curly scape the plant will put its resources into producing both seeds and small cloves, and won’t produce a bulb of any meaningful size. Once you’ve cut off the seed head the plant goes into survival mode, knowing its only chance to reproduce now is to create a large bulb with many cloves.
So, back to the reason you are reading this – our garlic, unlike garlic grown in the south has 6 long months to produce a vigorous root system, yet only has 4-6 weeks to produce a bulb – and growth in that period is very fast – that large root system allows the plant to pull up lots of water and nutrients to create big bulbs. There is no time for it to produce internal and external cloves – so expect to see between 4 and 6 much larger cloves around the center stalk, with no bothersome little ones hiding behind them. Because the plants know that the bulb and its cloves would naturally sit in the soil from the end of July until the fall when they would then start the growing cycle over (if they weren’t harvested,) they naturally produce lots of spicy oil to protect them from rotting between July and October.
Ultimately we end up with hot, spicy, oily garlic with very large cloves – the opposite of bland, small cloves you will find on commercial garlic grown in Mexico or China.
Growers in BC have to put far more labour into a good garlic crop, because the growth cycle, from planting to harvest and curing takes 9-10 months, which includes a lot more weeding and watering, plus walking the field every couple of days to cut off scapes, because every scape (seed stalk) that goes un-noticed means a garlic plant that is wasted.
So when you see BC organic garlic on the shelf for 4 times the price of conventional commercially produced garlic from southern climes, you know you are getting big cloves that are easy to peel and chop, and that are much more ‘garlicky’. As the saying goes: ‘you get what you pay for!’
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