How to Grow Garlic (And Why You Should)

Garlic is easy to grow, is indispensable to a wide range of cuisines, and discourages pests and diseases. All in all, it could be the most important plant in your garden.

| January/February 1990

Allium sativum is a cinch to grow, it's indispensable to a wide range of cuisines, and it's incredibly good for you. Furthermore, whether planted among other vegetables and flowers or ground up and used in a spray, garlic can keep crops healthy by discouraging pests and diseases. In short, every gardener should learn how to grow garlic, because no garden should be without this versatile herb.

Though the pungent plant probably originated in what is now the Kirghiz region of central Asia (on the Soviet-China border), garlic played a part in a wide variety of cultures over many centuries. References to the herb have been found in such ancient sources as 5,000-year-old Sanskrit, as well as 4,500-year-old Babylonian and 3,000-year-old Chinese writings. The Old Testament, too, tells us that the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness regretted not having the onions, leeks, and garlic they had left behind in Egypt.

As an illustration of its value to the Egyptians, 15 pounds of garlic could buy a healthy male slave. A full 1.5 million pounds (worth more than $2 million today) were consumed by workers during the 20 years it took to build the great pyramid at Giza (circa 2500 BC), and pyramid builders actually went on strike when a drought caused garlic and other food shortages (these were people without much of a union, too!).

In the Odyssey, Ulysses used an herb called moly (Allium moly is a species of wild garlic) to ward off the black magic of the sorceress Circe, and ancient Greeks often placed garlic on stones at crossroads as offerings to Hecate, a goddess of the underworld. Centuries later, garlic bulbs were thought to keep vampires at bay and were used to ward off the evil eye. (If no bulbs were at hand, one could simply shout, "Garlic in your eyes!")

Because it was used so extensively in the medicine, magic, and cuisine of the lower classes, garlic was often shunned by the elite. Though six mummified cloves were discovered in King Tut's tomb, garlic was forbidden to Egyptian priests, and Rome's senate forbade the use of garlic by those visiting the Temple of Cybele. Garlic is still taboo for many Buddhist priests and Hindu Brahmans, who believe this "hot" food distracts minds and souls from a spiritual path. An Islamic story of creation holds that garlic grew in the Garden of Eden wherever the Devil stepped with his left foot, and onions sprang up where he placed his right.

Even so, ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Babylonians, and Greeks (as well as herbalists of later centuries, including Native Americans) used garlic to fight—among other things—intestinal disorders, respiratory infections, scurvy, ulcers, insect and animal bites, blisters, and aging. Phoenicians and Vikings carried it on their long sea voyages. Romans (along with medieval peasants) considered the pungent bulb to be an aphrodisiac, and they also fed garlic to both their soldiers and gladiators to provide courage and strength.

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