An heirloom can be defined as a traditional or heritage plant variety that is preserved generation after generation through small scale agricultural practices. Throughout history, small-scale family farmers and gardeners have taken pride in preserving plant heritage through seed saving. Preserving heirloom plants is vital to the future of safe food. Fortuitously, there are plenty of food revolutionaries who are playing major roles in heirloom seed preservation including Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, deemed by the New York Times as “The Indiana Jones of Seeds”. We can all do our part in our own gardens by saving our seeds and growing them year after year, sharing our harvests and sharing our seeds with our neighbors. Seed saving is one of the single most important things a backyard organic gardener can do for the future of food.
History of Garlic
The origin of garlic can be traced back to Central Asia. Garlic’s illustrious history includes reverence in a vast array of ancient cultures and has been traced back to use in Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilizations and is mentioned throughout Ayurvedic medicine. It has been considered sacred by many civilizations that used garlic not only for its culinary charm but also for its highly medicinal properties. Garlic is the earliest documented plant used by humans. Garlic is a natural antibiotic which has been used in many cultures to prevent and treat a plethora of diseases. Garlic is loaded with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
According to the extensive research done on garlic collections around the world by Dr. Gayle Volk, Cryobotanist with the USDA in Ft. Collins, Colo., the varieties of garlic worldwide have been narrowed down to 10 distinct varietal groups. Five varieties are hard-necked including Rocambole, Porcelain, Purple Stripe, Glazed Purple Stripe, and Marbled Purple Stripe. Three are bolting hard-necked varieties that may produce softnecks including Asiatic, Creole and Turban. Two are soft-necked varieties which include Silverskin and Artichoke.
There are many stories of garlic being recovered from ditches, swamps, abandoned farms and the like. According to David Stern, founding director of the Garlic Seed Foundation, “stories like these prove the tenacity of garlic. Garlic has an enormous presence of life, meaning that it is highly adaptable and incredibly strong”. David states that American scientists discovered garlic growing and thriving in unbelievable growing conditions in the Ural Mountains which borders Afghanistan, the Soviet Union and China. This garlic was found growing at high altitude in almost no topsoil, exposed to harsh elements including strong winds and extremely cold temperatures. David highlights that garlic is one of the few plant species that has three separate means of reproduction: vegetative via the bulbil (clonal daughter), vegetative via the cloves in the bulb, and sexually above 4,000 feet via flowering.
Gateway Garlic Urban Farm
St. Louis, Mo., is home to a recovered lost heirloom garlic that has been hiding out at an abandoned farm for over 70 years. The discovery was made by the founder and owner of the Gateway Garlic Urban Farm, Mark “Carondelet Garlic” Brown, who truly understands the importance of garlic.
Mark became intrigued after finding out that between 25 percent to 30 percent of heirlooms are recovered by individuals who have found them still growing at abandoned farmsteads. He immediately began his quest to find lost heirlooms in the river city region. In 2011, Mark found a series of farmsteads and went door to door asking if he could search for crop remnants on their land. He first located the original foundation and searched the perimeter. He searched many farmsteads and discovered nine separate garlic varieties. From those 9 varieties, he collected 50-100 samples of each and transplanted them into berms he built at the Gateway Garlic Urban Farm with the intention of saving the seed stock. He sent those nine separate varieties off to an organization in New Zealand to have them tested.
According to the tests, one of those varieties was said had its own genetic drift, which means that it meets the criteria to qualify as its own variety. This variety, merely scallion size, was found on an abandoned farmstead that had trees growing through the original farmhouse foundation. The garlic was growing around the foundation and even under the forest canopy. This land had not been farmed for over 70 years. This garlic variety recovered is a member of the Rocambole family with the origin being traced back to Eastern Central Europe. Mark says, “This makes since because it was found on a farm that was settled by German immigrants”. The recovered heirloom is a hardneck type of garlic that is closely related to the German Red Garlic variety.
After Mark discovered the importance of this lost variety, he went back to the site where it was found and asked permission to collect the remaining plants. He dug up over 40,000 garlic plants and transplanted them into the Gateway Garlic Urban Farm. He grew this variety in raised berms of pulverized clay with a top dressing of compost.
The first year, he saved most of the seed stock and planted it in the fall. He sorted through thousands of cloves, only selecting the largest ones to be planted so that the final outcome would be a larger bulb of garlic. He donated 40 lbs of the smaller cloves of garlic to Mutual Aid, a local food pantry. Mark spent over 2 years reconditioning these plants. Mark stated that, “Garlic becomes highly adapted to its environment, reseeding itself as the bulbils drop to the ground, meaning this garlic has been replicating itself for over 70 years”. After 3 years of nurturing this resilient variety of garlic in historic Carondelet at the Gateway Garlic Urban Farm, he decided to name the garlic Carondelet. According to Mark, the Carondelet variety of garlic is unique in that it is highly adaptable; it withstands the bitter cold winter temperatures in the Midwest and is also drought tolerant. According to Mark, “the Carondelet variety of garlic endured this past winter like a champion compared to the Creole and Mediterranean varieties” The flavor is moderately tangy and spicy. It is fairly easy to peel, especially with the technique that requires shaking garlic between two metal bowls.
Mark comes from a long line of farmers in the Northern Illinois and Wisconsin regions. Some of his earliest childhood memories are of harvesting and eating raw sunflower seeds with his siblings and helping his parents harvest peas at the 2 lot urban farm he grew up on in Chicago. His parents were victory gardeners. His paternal grandfather was a ploughman at the turn of the century. Growing food is a part of his heritage. Mark Brown, a Saint Louis transplant has been farming in Missouri for 13 years and has been active in Urban Farming in St. Louis since 2005. In 2007, he founded the Gateway Garlic Urban Farm in the Carondelet Neighborhood, which now has 10 members and 15 allied growers. Mark also spearheads The St. Louis Garlic Fest, which began as a private event with friends enjoying garlic dishes together over a decade ago. The St. Louis Garlic Fest is now in its 6th season and has drawn a crowd of over 3,500 individuals in recent years.
A Network of Organic Growers
Mark Brown is a member of The Missouri Organic Association. Mark is passionate about building a network of allied farmers, sharing resources between organic growers, educating others including the youth about organic farming and sharing the harvest with local food banks. He has helped start many urban farms in the St. Louis area including Tarry There Gardens, a small urban permaculture farm. Mark recently built a 12 x 40 ft poly tunnel using 100% recycled and reclaimed materials where he demonstrates bioponic, aquaponic and hydroponic growing methods. The poly-tunnel and the farm are used as an outdoor education center for the Oak Scouts. Gateway Garlic Farm has open free plots for beginning urban farmers who wish to learn how to grow their own food or sell food at markets. The Gateway Garlic Urban Farm centers on community involvement, outreach and education. They work closely with local food banks such as Mutual Aid and Haven Street. They donate produce on a regular basis to these and other area food banks. Mark owns and grows food on several lots throughout South St. Louis from Dutchtown to Carondelet. He sells produce to several restaurants in St. Louis and shares it with neighbors and friends.
In light of the recent tragedies in Ferguson, Mark and a group of friends, farmers, organic food activists, social activists and volunteers mobilized in Ferguson, Mo. bringing with them the harvest from their fields and donated nonperishable food items. According to Mark, “they created a mobile free food oasis to counter the food desert that was already existing there. They gave away free organic produce and taught healthy eating habits to Ferguson residents”
“It’s small farmers who will help end hunger in our world while simultaneously teaching it to be more sustainable.” – Mark Brown
Planting Garlic This Fall
Simply place the unpeeled garlic (flat side down) in a small furrow 6-8 inches apart. Slightly cover with soil so that you can still see the tip of each clove. Mulch the entire patch of planted garlic heavily with straw (a layer that is 6-10 inches thick). The straw helps to suppress the weeds but the garlic stalk is able to emerge through the straw in the spring. For a larger garlic bulb, cut the garlic scapes as soon as they emerge. Harvest bulbs in early July. To harvest, tug the stalk gently out of the ground with both hands from the base of the plant. Peel the outer dirt layer and hang in a cool dry area until they have cured for about 2-3 weeks. The curing process allows the volatile oils to go into the bulbs.Garlic bulbs (heads of garlic) can be broken apart and the unpeeled individual garlic cloves can be planted in prepared loose soil this fall (typically late October) to be harvested next July.
Photo by Kari Pillow. To see more photos from the event, check out Kari’s Facebook photo album.