‘Bob Steffen’s Hardneck’ Garlic: Try This Drought- and Flood-Tolerant Giant Variety for Changing Climates

Reader Contribution by Pamela Sherman
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Betsy Samuelson with ‘Bob Steffen’s Hardneck’ garlic. Readers interested in this garlic variety can reach Betsy via betsy4589@gmail.com.

Floods, drought, ruined harvests; by now, many of us have experienced these, and we hear it may get worse. In previous posts, we’ve considered paths to resilience through soil health. But the missing piece in every resilient gardener’s toolbox is locally adapted seed, as this story, written by farmer Betsy Samuelson, explains so well.

Betsy’s Story

Garlic isn’t typically grown from seed. It’s grown by saving a few of the plumpest bulbs at harvest time, separating the bulbs into cloves, and planting those cloves the very same fall. Nonetheless, folks call it “seed garlic” and grow it each year to continue the existence of favored varieties.

If you search for ‘Bob Steffen’s Hardneck’ garlic, you won’t find it, because I’m one of three keepers of this 80-year-old variety. ‘Bob Steffen’s Hardneck’ can be as big as elephant garlic, but it’s much more flavorful and only has four cloves. The cloves are so big that to use a garlic press, you must cut each clove in quarters. It’s also super-easy to peel. These characteristics make it a real pleasure to have on hand. It never had a name, so we call it ‘Bob Steffen’s Hardneck’ to give credit where credit is due; Bob spent a lifetime breeding this variety.

Bob was the farm superintendent of Boys Town from 1943 to 1977. He led commercial-scale organic and biodynamic farming methods in the Midwest. Bob Steffen died in 2006, and I never met him. But his son, Jim, and I served together on a local food policy council. At that time, I had been growing his father’s special variety of garlic for some years.

‘Bob Steffen’s Hardneck’ garlic came into my care while I was working as the production manager at Bloomsorganic Farm in Crescent, Iowa. Diversity among varieties of herbs, vegetables, and flowers was our specialty. We grew more than 100 varieties of tomatoes and about nine varieties of garlic. Bob Steffen was a mentor to Bloomsorganic Farm owner Rebecca Bloom, and he gave her a handful of seed garlic 30-some years ago.

Photo by Unsplash/Tony Liao

Beginning in April 2011, a major flood event occurred in the Missouri River Valley, and our garlic crop was in saturated soil, if not underwater, until its July harvest. Only two or three varieties survived, and ‘Bob Steffen’s Hardneck’ was among those. Then, between spring 2012 and summer 2013, our region was in a major drought. To our astonishment, this variety prevailed in drought and flood conditions.

As if the garlic hadn’t suffered enough, aster yellows (a bacteria carried by the aster leafhopper) hit the crop in 2014. All the garlic varieties quickly began to die back prematurely. When harvested, almost every bulb had major discoloration and a putrid smell. However, it was clear that one variety didn’t take too big of a hit: ‘Bob Steffen’s Hardneck.’

When I left Bloomsorganic Farm in 2015, I grabbed some cloves of ‘Bob Steffen’s Hardneck.’ This fall, I made sure to plant about 30 cloves at my childhood home, which is about half a mile from Boys Town. I like to think that it’s happy to be growing there now, that maybe it has a remembrance of its origin, in such close proximity. After all, seeds (or cloves) hold a memory of all the generations that came before, and they store the potential of everything yet to be. Seed saving connects me to previous generations, to the earth that supports our being, to my own spirit. Bob Steffen couldn’t have predicted whether anyone would continue to cultivate his garlic into the future, but I’m sure grateful for all the trouble he went through to create this variety. Hopefully, I can leave such gifts for future generations — this is why I’m devoted to saving seeds and sharing them with pure delight.

Betsy’s fascination with the cycles of life inspired her community and policy activism surrounding non-commercial seed sharing. She seeks to empower others to save and share seeds. Get in touch with her about this garlic at Betsy4589 [at] gmail [.] com.

Pamela Shermangardens with her husband at 8,300 feet on part of an old pioneer farm on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. She can be reached here.Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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