Garlic Escapade

This is an article I wrote for The Essential Herbal Magazine, Jan/Feb 2020

For years, I’ve been growing a couple of varieties of garlic that I first got from local organic farmers, Cliff and Arlene Kindy.  They lived a few miles down the road from me, and over the years, I had come to consider them my organic gardening mentors.  Now that I’ve moved to the next community over, I still take time to visit them, and we discuss my new gardens and fruit trees, and I ask lots of questions.  They’ve even stopped by to see what I’m doing, and offer up any advice I might need.  For example, I’ve got a thistle problem, and Cliff told me that he’s found planting sweet potatoes in areas where thistle grows will help eradicate the invasive pest.

Last fall, I got it into my head that I wanted to try some new varieties of garlic, so I ended up ordering from the Maine Potato Lady.  I chose a couple of varieties claiming to be hardy and long keeping, prepared my soil, and planted in October as usual.  I had the worst garlic harvest I’ve ever had, despite doing everything right, and growing conditions being favorable.  What the heck happened?

As serendipity would have it, I just so happened to find some garlic growing wild in a ditch on the property.  I noticed it this summer when it sent up scapes which started forming bulbils.  This reminded me of the story Cliff told me about one the varieties of garlic he grew.  His dad had found the garlic growing wild, collected some of the bulbils, and planted them.  Cliff got some of this garlic from his dad, and each successive year planted the largest cloves, until he ended up with huge, beautiful heads of garlic with fantastic flavor.  With this story in mind, I decided I wanted to grow the ditch garlic, and see what I ended up with in a few years. You know me, I immediately went into research mode, and what I found was illuminating, explaining my poor garlic harvest.

I learned garlic is well known for its propensity for regional adaptation.  The reason Cliff’s garlic grew so well for me, is because it’s been growing in my area for decades.  The garlic I got from the Maine Potato Lady has adapted to the growing conditions of Maine, and would take several years of growing here in Indiana before it would become anywhere near as productive as the Kindy garlic.   This ability to adapt to local growing conditions has me a little excited about the ditch garlic I found.  To begin with, where did this garlic come from?  Could this be garlic gone wild from the garlic Isaac Hagerman planted when he first established the farm back in the mid 1800’s?  Of course, I’ll never know, but you can see why I’ve decided I want to try to grow and improve it.  

Further research into propagating garlic led me to the work of landrace seedsman, Joseph Lofthouse.  He defines landrace growing as “an intimate relationship between a location, a farmer, and a population of genetically-diverse seed.”  As gardeners, I imagine we’re all at least a little acquainted with the concept of the loss of crop diversity, due to the monoculture of industrialized agriculture.  Saving our own seed is one way to help preserve genetic diversity, but it’s also the way to end up with varieties that will best perform in our particular locations.

Garlic has been grown for millennia by cloning, and is effectively sterile, rarely producing true seed. The bulbils produced in the scapes aren’t true seed, but another way to propagate by cloning.  Cloning, asexual propagation using plant tissue, results in plants that are genetically identical to the parent plant.  Examples of cloning would be stem and leaf cuttings, onion sets, seed potatoes, strawberry runners, grafting, etc. However, plants grown from seed, sexual reproduction involving pollination, are genetically different from the parent plant.  So, it goes to reason that to encourage genetic diversity, it’s preferable to grow from seed, as opposed to cloning.  This last sentence really glosses over a more complex subject, which I’m not going to get into.  Lofthouse has been working with garlic to obtain true seed, and further develop garlic that will continue to produce true seed for the sake of genetic diversity and better regional adaptation.  If you’re interested in a more in-depth look at what he’s doing, a google search of his name will take you directly to his website. 

What I’m doing with this ditch garlic is two-fold.  First, I removed bulbils from a lot of the scapes, being careful not to damage the few flowers interspersed between the bulbils. I then left those flowers to continue to bloom, in the hopes that they might be pollinated and produce some seed. Lofthouse warned that this may or may not work. In his first attempt, he obtained 2 seeds from 2,000 plants.  I was working with a few dozen plants, and I think I may have ended up with one seed, but it’s not a great looking seed.  I’m going to try again next year.  The second thing I’ve done is dug up a few heads of the garlic.  In October when I planted my two varieties of Kindy garlic, I also planted 30 of the largest cloves from the ditch garlic.  When I harvest it next summer, I’m hoping the heads and cloves will be a little larger, and that a few years of repeating the process will result in my own unique variety of garlic, adapted to my particular growing conditions.

This brings me to an interesting observation I’ve made here at the new place.  Yes, I still think of it as the new place, despite having been here for a little over 2 years.  I’ve discovered that our property sits inside a microclimate encompassing a few surrounding miles.  The first summer we were here, many times when rain was moving in from the west, it would miss us, and it ended up being a rather dry summer.  The same thing happened last summer, so I started watching the weather systems on weather maps as they moved.  I noticed a strange thing happening.  About ½ mile to the west, the weather system would suddenly hit a line and ooze around it, reforming again to the east of us.  It looked like a little hole in the system that would move around us like an amoeba. I watched this happen over and over again, always leaving the surrounding few miles untouched by rain.  This spring I was studying the USDA hardiness zone map, and discover that most of the northern part of Indiana is designated zone 5b, but that my farm is located on a small little island of a few miles that is designated zone 6a.  This little island corresponds almost exactly with the little hole of weather I was observing on the weather maps. In chatting with a neighboring multi-generational farmer, I mentioned my weather observations, and he confirmed my observations, saying it had been that way as long as he could remember.

Considering the failure of the Maine garlic, the story of the Kindy garlic, my discovery of the local microclimate, and then the discovery of the ditch garlic, is it any wonder I’ve gone completely garden nerd at the prospect of this garlic experiment?  If you’ll be patient along with me, I’ll be sure to include an update in a future article.

Update: Today is August 12, and I harvested my ditch garlic experiment last month, and wanted to share the results. It was a huge success. If you look above at the picture of the heads of ditch garlic I dug up last year, they are a little over an inch in diameter, and the largest cloves were about the size of the fingernail on my little pinkie. Take a look at the size of the head of ditch garlic I’ve got in my hand in the picture below. The garlic to the left is some of the Kindy garlic. In just one year, the ditch garlic is pretty much the size of any normal cultivated garlic!

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