Sara Lipe

Sara Lipe, shown with bulbs of garlic, began producing the pungent plants about four years ago, when a supplier to her farm market retired. She produced about 70 pounds this year.

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Garlic may be only a supporting player most of the time in the culinary world. But it can sometimes act as the main dish.

Sara Lipe is one of many commercial growers in the Midwest. Hers is a small operation that is an add-on to the family apple and peach orchard.

“I think locally grown anything is better than what you get at the store,” Lipe said.

Laszlo Mortan agrees. The owner of Galena Garlic Company in Galena, Illinois, grew 4 acres of garlic this year and plans to expand that to 5 acres in 2020.

Mortan is one of the principal participants in an annual garlic festival, held in August this year at Elizabeth. The event featured nine commercial producers.

Mortan’s acres are largely planted and harvested by hand. He does have a potato digger, but often finds that hand-picking is more efficient. He covers his field with a mat of straw.

“It all depends on how the ground is,” he said. “With straw down, the ground stays moist, and it pulls right out.”

Lipe said garlic needs to be in well-drained and fertilized soil. While it can be sowed in the spring, a fall planting results in bigger bulbs.

“In the spring it will put up a stalk, and it puts out a pretty purple flower, called a spathe,” she said. “But that means the bulb is going to be smaller, because the energy is going to that flower instead of the bulb. You can cook with it just like you would spring onions.”

The plant’s flower and stem imparts a milder flavor than the bulb.

Lipe’s experience growing garlic began about four years ago, when a local supplier who provided it for the orchard’s roadside stand got out of the business. He encouraged her to grow it, and helped her get started.

Lipe produces about 70 pounds of garlic annually. She is usually out this time of year, but had a bigger-than-usual crop, so still has some on hand. She sells out of the orchard’s fruit and produce stand in this Jackson County community.

Most of the world’s garlic is grown in China. The plant is native to Asia.

Garlic is easily grown by home gardeners. Bulbs should be broken apart into individual cloves. The largest cloves will produce the largest bulbs. The roots will grow from the scab on the fat end of the garlic clove.

Plant the cloves 6 to 8 inches apart. Rows should be 10 to 12 inches apart.

After harvest (usually June or July in the Midwest), form bundles of about 10 plants each and tie them with twine about 6 inches above the bulbs. Then hang the bundles to cure in a dry shady place.

After three or four weeks, the plants will have dried down and you can trim the roots to about half an inch in length. Then you can either leave the bundles hanging or cut the tops off about an inch above the garlic bulbs and store the bulbs in a net bag in a cool, dark, well ventilated place until you are ready to enjoy them.

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.