Giant garlic is its own special side dish

Back in the days when a small part of present-day Czechoslovakia was the Kingdom of Bohemia, someone discovered an unusually large garlic -- a freak genetic mutation perhaps -- growing in his garden.

The discovery was shared with a few friends and neighbors.

The Bohemians, and only the Bohemians, grew this large garlic until some of them emigrated to America, specifically to the agriculturally famous Willamette Valley area of Oregon. They must have brought along some of their larger-than-average garlic and planted it in their home vegetable plots, for in 1941 Nick Nichols stumbled across some growing in a backyard in Scio, Ore.

In those days most Americans reasoned that it was ill-mannered to appear in polite company with garlic-tainted breath -- and that it was best to avoid the vegetable altogether. But the sheer size of the bulb impressed Mr. Nichols so much that, old prejudices aside, he sought to buy up all he could.

Several weeks of searching produced a total of 12 1/4 pounds of the new garlic -- the parent stock that ultimately made Elephant garlic available to all America and many overseas countries as well. Australians and South Africans, not traditional garlic-eating peoples, were among the first overseas buyers of the Nichols Garden Nursery line.

From the start, Nichols used a selective breeding program, improving size and hardiness so much that by 1953 the garlic had increased still further in size -- to some 8 times larger than conventional garlic bulbs. At this stage it was aptly named Elephant garlic by the folks at Nichols Garden Nursery. Before that, they had sold it simply as giant garlic.

Elephant garlic has a slightly milder flavor than conventional garlic. If baked, it can be served as a side dish all on its own -- without the diners having to shun their friends for the next few days. Those who grow it say that it imparts a wonderful flavor to roasts and gravies, soups and stews. And if you are a lover of Indian curry dishes, you will love the contribution which Elephant garlic makes to your favorite dish.

Another benefit is that it is much simpler to peel, simply because the individual cloves are so large.

Except in far northern areas where winters are particularly harsh, Elephant garlic, like the conventional kind, does well if planted in the fall -- from mid-September through the first week of October in the North, and on into November in milder regions. In the very cold wheat-growing regions of the United States and Canada spring planting is preferable -- although spring planting apparently causes some Elephant garlic to grow like an onion with a single bulb rather than as a cluster of cloves.

The idea behind fall planting is to allow the garlic to develop an established root system by the time the bitter cold weather arrives. With a good root system, Elephant garlic can withstand subzero temperatures. However, it is advisable to mulch the garlic plot in the North.

Plant Elephant garlic, blunt side down, about 2 inches deep in soil that has been loosened to a depth of about 8 inches. The garlic appreciates organic matter in the soil, so you should work in compost, well-rotted manures, and/or peat moss. If your soil is a heavy clay, be particularly liberal with the organic matter to bring it into the friable condition in which Elephant garlic seems to thrive. And since Elephant garlic prefers a neutral to mildly acid soil, add lime at this time if your soil is acid

The folks at Nichols recommend organic fertilizers, as these improve the soil as well as feed the plant. Nitrogen (fish emulsion, fish meal, or blood meal are all good sources) is required in the early spring to get the green leaves growing strongly.

When the leaves are 6 to 8 inches tall, applications of nitrogen should cease. Remember, the more vigorous the leaf growth, the bigger the bulb is likely to be -- provided the plant also has adequate sources of phosphorus to stimulate root development.

Bone meal is a good organic source of phosphorus, but it is slow acting. So sprinkle bone meal (about a tablespoonful) at the bottom of each hole at planting time.

Potash, which can come from wood ashes, is the third major element in your garlic fertilization program -- although you should avoid the ashes if your soil is already at the neutral level because the ashes are highly alkaline. Another good source, and one which also provides nitrogen, is cow manure. Feed it in liquid form during the spring and you may well find your plants are getting adequate amounts of both elements.

In late spring the garlic plants will send up a central stalk with a bud on the end. Snip off the bud because if it flowers, it will do so at tremendous cost to the development of the bulb.

Elephant garlic is ready to harvest when the leaves and stalk are yellow and beginning to die back.

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