For your health: Growing gormet garlic

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ORRVILLE, Ohio – When Bob Zimmerman was growing up in Pennsylvania, his Italian grandfather called him “Bobba Mike.” When Zimmerman moved to Ohio and settled in Wayne County just outside of Orrville, he began raising garlic the way he did with his grandfather.

When it came time to come up with a name for the farm, it was only natural that Zimmerman would use the name Bobba-Mike. Today, Bobba-Mike’s Garlic Farm is operated by Bob Zimmerman and Wendy Douglas.

Evolved from garden. What started as a single row in a backyard garden has evolved into a 4-acre plot with 38 strains of gourmet garlic marketed through stores or over the Internet at www.garlicfarm.com. They also raise shallots and sell seed stock all over the United States.

Douglas explained that there are two distinct varieties of garlic; hard neck and soft neck. Hard neck garlic has a hard core and features six to eight large cloves within the head. This feature, along with its flavor, makes it popular among chefs and gourmet cooks.

Soft neck garlic doesn’t have a hard core and it has a lot of tiny inner cloves within the head.

Bobba-Mike’s Garlic Farm raises two varieties of hard neck garlic; Continental and Rocambole. Within those varieties they raise several strains, as well as several specialty strains.

Zimmerman said most growers will key into one variety.

“When you get into strains, it requires a lot of labor,” he said. “Garlic won’t cross pollinate, but it will tend to start looking alike if you grow two strains side by side for a long period of time.”

Fall planting. They begin planting their garlic by hand in October in order to have it ready for harvest in July when the leaves start to brown down. The biggest mistake growers make is to harvest their crop too late, Douglas said.

“It makes a difference,” she said. “If you harvest the crop too late, the bulb will split, it won’t have as much skin left on it and it won’t store as well.”

After the bulbs are harvested, they are hung to dry for two weeks.

Fertility program. Garlic grows well in sandy loamy soil that is high in organic matter with a pH of about 7.8, according to Zimmerman. They use only green manure and dehydrated chicken manure to feed the soil and plants.

Because they are raising the crop organically, weeds are a constant battle, Douglas said. They till the soil between the rows and weed between the plants by hand to promote optimum growth.

Once they harvest the crop, they plant a cover crop, which they mow down and plow under. After the soil has been worked through with a disk, they begin planting the crop by hand using seed stock from their own plots.

One reason they use their own seedstock is because it has adapted to the area, Zimmerman said. New varieties take a couple of years to adapt to the soil and weather.

Zimmerman explained that when they harvest the crop, they retain medium heads that are about 21/4 to 23/4 inches in diameter. They split the head and plant the largest clove 4 inches deep, 5 inches apart. They typically plant between 16,000 and 20,000 plants per acre.

When the neck shoots up a scape, the scape is pruned off so the energy goes to the bulb instead of forming bulblets at the top of the plant. The scapes are sold to the Korean market.

Garlic is planted in hills to divert water away from the head.

“Garlic likes water and sun up to a point,” Zimmerman said. “It needs heat and about a half inch of moisture per week. We had a good season going into the rain this spring. Garlic doesn’t like any water past June when it starts bulbing out. If it gets a lot of moisture, it wants to grow some more and stresses the plant.”

He added that the hard neck garlic varieties like cold weather, in fact the colder the weather, the better. But a hot summer will also make the garlic spicier.

Harvest. When it is time to harvest the garlic, they use a tool similar to a chisel plow to break open four rows at a time. They harvest with an under-cutter that cuts the roots and pops up the plant. They pick the bulb out by hand and wipe the dirt off the bulb.

Garlic bruises just like apples do, according to Zimmerman. They don’t put the bulbs out on the ground because they will get sunburned unless they are covered with leaves. If the bulb does get sunburned, it will crystallize and get brown inside.

Once they have harvested the garlic, the plants are bundled and hung to dry for about two weeks. They cut the tops and roots off the bulbs and sort by size ready to be marketed. For home use, growers can use the garlic right out of the field without drying it down.

The major garlic producers in the world are China, Mexico, Argentina and California.

California is a particular challenge to growers in other areas because they can produce the crop cheaper and it is ready for harvest by late May or early June. Still, more and more markets are looking for locally grown produce because of the quality and freshness.

“Garlic is good for you,” Douglas said. “We get a lot of satisfaction out of producing a product that is good for you.”

For information on Bobba-Mike’s Garlic Farm, write P.O. Box 261, Orrville, OH 44667; or e-mail garlic@garlicfarm.com.

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