As powerful as garlic is, it's maddingly hard to define. It's too strongly flavored to qualify as a side dish, but it's too substantial to fit in the herb category.
Its unique flavor, whether used subtlely or in mouth-searing amounts, is indispensable in cuisines the world over, from Italian pesto to Korean kimchi. Ardent fans risk social ostracization after a garlic-heavy meal.
But doesn't garlic's association with California, the Mediterranean, Asia and other hot climates rule it out for growing in the Pacific Northwest?
It turns out that garlic grows like gangbusters in the Puget Sound area. And here's the best news: It's a winter crop. Planting season is now, with harvest in June and July.
Twenty years ago, Mark Sand was looking for something new to grow on his family's farm near Olympia, Wash. On a whim, he bought $200 worth of garlic.
"My mother said, 'Why did you do that? Garlic can't grow here,' " Sand recalled. He planted the cloves just to prove to her that they would grow.
A few years later, he had more garlic than he knew what to do with. "I have all this garlic and I can't sell it. Let's have a garlic festival," he told a friend.
That festival still attracts thousands every summer and Sand still supplies the garlic for it.
Diane Downie and Paul Shelley are known for their "Tomatopia" -- their backyard contains hundreds of tomato plants as well as dozens of other crops in the summer. But, in winter, much of that space is turned over to garlic. They are in the midst of planting 1,200 cloves in 16 varieties.
The cloves send up shoots in spring, giving their garden the look of a freakishly early corn patch. Other winter crops include kale, chard, fennel and Brussels sprouts.
The couple plant their garlic in raised beds as well as in rows that allow space for future tomato planting in late spring. Spacing varies from 6 to 8 inches between cloves (pointy tips up), with depth based on size of clove (two to three times the size of the bulb length.)
Planting in full sun is key, Shelley said. When the bulbs are planted, they are fertilized with a mix formulated for bulbs and flowers (4-8-4).
Planting can be accomplished as late as March, but that yields small bulbs. Shelley and Downie get all of their cloves in the ground by the end of December.
Surprisingly, rot is not much of a problem Shelley said.
In March, the garlic gets a shot of nitrogen in the form of a top dressing (10-1-2). The couple mulches the plants with compost at the same time. Manure and blood meal also work well, Sand said.
Downie and Shelley plant two types of garlic. Soft neck is the classic white type sold by the bucket in grocery stores. It has no stalk and no flower and takes two weeks to dry after harvest. Hard neck is bigger, hotter and doesn't keep as well. It takes three to four weeks to dry.
Downie and Shelley cut off the garlic's scape (the top of the stem with the flower) after it begins to curl. While garlic flowers yield small bulbs that can be used as seed, it will take several seasons to produce edible bulbs.
Downie and Shelley harvest their garlic when the plants have only three green leaves left. The earliest varieties are ready in June and the later ones in July.
After cleaning, the garlic plants are dried on racks in the couple's basement with a dehumidifier running. When dry, the tops and root hairs are cut off. Bulbs not eaten are stored on racks. The biggest bulbs and cloves are set aside for planting in fall.