Vegetable? Herb? Spice? Medicinal Plant?: 'It's Garlic'

Mar 22, 2018

There are some people who cannot cook without garlic, it’s an integral part of some cuisines.

The plant is part of the allium family, which also contains onions, scallions, leeks, shallots, and chives. But contributor Dave Kozlowski of Pinehold Gardens says that farming garlic is a bit different from most of the other produce he grows.

"Garlic is such an interesting plant...because it is a vegetable, but it's not; and it's a spice and a herb, but it's not; and it's a medicinal plant, but it's not. It's all of those but it's none of those - it's garlic," he jokes.

Originating in Southeast Asia, there are reports that the Egyptians even used garlic thousands of years ago for medicinal purposes, Kozlowski says. It was soon after developed for food culture, but in very isolated varieties and wasn't introduced in this country until the 1700s.

"We actually never really caught on until the 1920s or so," notes Kozlowski. "So (Americans) are late bloomers in the culinary field of using garlic for our food."

He adds the dominant supplier of garlic (fresh, dehydrated, and processed) in the U.S. is Gilroy, California - "the holy land of garlic."

"But unfortunately, something like 75 percent of our garlic is imported and most of that comes from China," says Kozlowksi. China is the largest supplier, followed by India and Korea. However, the American market is large enough to have Canada and Mexico as its number one importers of the bulb.

Dave Kozlowski in the Lake Effect studio with garlic from Pinehold Gardens (left) and from the supermarket.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

Unlike most produce, Kozlowski says garlic is planted in the fall and harvested in the summer (making July a prime time to buy and consume it). "Garlic is like your daffodils, like your tulips - it's a bulb," he notes. "And if you think of your bulb planting in your gardens, you usually do that in the fall time as well."

The most common garlic varieties grown are hard neck and soft neck, Kozlowski explains. "Most of the garlic that folks plant these days, in this country anyways, is hard neck. It doesn't last as long as soft neck, but it is by far tastier."

He says another component of what makes garlic so unique is its ability to grow without fertilization. An asexual plant, you simply break a head of garlic into separate cloves and plant them underground. Its true stem is underground, forming its buds over the winter that expand into bloated leaves that turn into cloves of garlic.

"What you see above ground isn't really a true stem, it's just the leaves of the plant." He continues, "A larger clove will yield a larger head of garlic only because it has that much more food to live on while the plant is setting roots to grow on."

Kozlowski encourages all gardeners to try planting their own garlic - and notes one of his favorite way to consume garlic is by roasting the whole head and spreading it over a delicious fresh baguette. "It is just heaven."