Spaghetti sauce, Caesar salad, shrimp scampi and many other favorite foods have a common ingredient that can be easily grown in the mountains: garlic.
This USDA Zone 3 perennial is a member of the onion family, although it differs somewhat by producing several small bulbs, called cloves, instead of one large bulb. The leaves of the plant, which can grow between 2 and 3 feet in height, are flat instead of round and hollow like onions and chives. A flower stalk originates from the center of the plant and produces a sphere of white flowers with a pale lavender tint. The plant flourishes in full sun and soil that is high in organic content and kept moist. Dry soil and clay soil will cause the bulbs to form into irregular shapes.
Garlic is generally planted from the cloves because the plants rarely produce seeds. For the best garlic, use the smooth, fresh outer cloves of the garlic bulb. And for the best yields, don't divide the garlic bulb until just before planting the cloves in the ground. You'll need to divide and replant your garlic about every four to five years.
To obtain the largest bulbs next summer, plant your garlic cloves now. Set them into the ground about 1 inch deep and about 3 inches apart in an upright position, and water well. Cut back the flower stalks when they appear in the spring so that the plant's energy goes down to its bulbs - if you're growing garlic to harvest for your cooking. Otherwise, leave the flowers as a pretty garden decoration.
Besides its tastiness, one of the great features of garlic is its lack of pests and diseases. In fact, garlic is a wonderful plant to pair up with roses, tomatoes, cabbages, eggplant and other plants that tend to attract aphids or other pests. Garlic serves as a deterrent to repel these devilish pests. However, do not plant garlic near peas or beans because it is known to inhibit the growth of those plants.
You can begin harvesting garlic bulbs as soon as the leaves begin to turn yellow and dry up, probably in early September. Simply dig up the bulbs (rather than pulling by the foliage), shake off excess dirt and hang up to dry in an area with good air circulation. When the bulbs have dried, use scissors to cut off the tops and roots and store in a dry place such as a basket or container with air holes. The bulbs should store well for six to seven months.
Use the cloves as a wonderful flavoring for sauces, salads, soups, breads and pasta dishes. Note that garlic can turn a purplish-blue color when used in canning or acidic foods. This usually happens when the garlic is immature or overly dry, but it does not affect the taste or edibility of the dish.
Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.