The garlic equation

Sowing garlic in your garden means that you will always have something growing. It’s planted in autumn, when the rest of the garden is about done. The cloves send out roots, but don’t sprout, and patiently brood through the winter before making their moves in spring. The shoots are a foot tall when the rest of the garden is still brown. By the time garlic is harvested in early summer, the rest of the garden is in full swing.

I planted my first crop of garlic in Portland, Ore., behind a house known as The Farm. It was another millennia, we were young and foolish and idealistic, and my garlic partner and I mulched our crop with leaves from the nearby hardwoods. The winter rains turned that brown foliage into a thick mat that was all but impenetrable to young garlic plants. When only a few shoots emerged, we dug into the mulch and found the rest, about six inches long, colored pale yellow, and growing sideways against a ceiling of dead, wet leaves.

We pulled off the mulch and let the garlic stand up over the next few days. Then we put the leaves back in between the garlic plants. As soon as the leaves dried out, they blew away.

But garlic is hearty, and despite our mistakes we got an amazing crop. The following autumn we planted some of our harvest, and I quit buying garlic.

That changed a few years later, when a bushel basket full of Romanian Red garlic caught my eye at the Okanogan Barter Faire, in central Washington.

For those who haven’t been to a barter faire, it’s a Pacific Northwest tradition that’s something of a cross between a farmer’s market, a flea market and a rainbow gathering. It’s people camping out together in a temporary community, partying around fires by night and trading goods with one another by day. The goods include almost anything you can imagine, handmade or mass produced.

Okanogan’s barter faire is revered in the barter faire community. It’s the mothership of barter faires, the stuff of legend. I know a woman who forgot to bring her sleeping bag to Okanogan. She ended up meeting her future husband, and stayed warm in his. Something along those lines happened when I first set eyes on that Romanian Red, waiting in the back of a pickup truck. That was the moment I met my garlic soul mate.

I found the grower, David Ronniger. I did not barter for my 20 pounds of Romanian Red. I did not offer him a jar of homemade pickles. I handed over cash for my new stash, and I brought it home and planted it.

The garlic that resulted from that planting, and the generations of Romanian Red that have followed, have made me very happy. It has a great flavor that’s complex, earthy and spicy — but without the blinding white fire of some garlic. The cloves are large and easy to peel; the bulbs are large, and they store a long time without getting soft or drying out.

I quit planting my other garlic, Spanish Roja, and I’ve been living on Romanian Red ever since. At least, until the time I didn’t plant enough garlic, and I had to pay for it again.

“Enough garlic” is a slippery concept. In my case, it means having enough that after planting for next year, enough remains that I can enjoy a bulb a day until harvest.

Romanian Red is a variety of garlic in the so-called “hardneck” category, which means it sends up an edible flower, called a scape, each spring. Scapes are delicious, and fun to cook and eat. If a hardneck grower runs out of garlic in spring, he or she can at least get by on the flowers until the bulbs are ready. But the year I didn’t plant enough garlic, I didn’t even make it to garlic flower season before I was buying Chinese softneck garlic at the supermarket.

It was disgusting. It was humiliating. And I swore it would never happen again.

To make sure of this, I came up with an equation with which I could calculate how much garlic I must plant in order to generate a self-sustaining crop. Deriving this equation was a cathartic experience that finally allowed me to put my algebra studies to use, and should keep me in garlic for the foreseeable future.

One needs the values of two variables in order to calculate how many bulbs worth of garlic you should plant.

The first variable, “Y,” is how many bulbs of harvested garlic you wish to eat in a year. In my case, that’s one per day, or 365.

The other variable, “Z,” is the average number of cloves per bulb of your variety of garlic. The lower the value of Z, the more bulbs worth of garlic cloves you will need to plant in order to grow enough.

If Romanian Red has one weakness, at least from a grower’s perspective, it is in the “Z” department. The cloves are so big that the number per head is small, averaging about five. Some softnecks, by comparison, can have 15 or more cloves per bulb, which is great if you want to grow lots of garlic. But I’m more a cook than a gardener. I’d rather plant more cloves and peel fewer for the same amount of garlic.

Here is my equation, where “G” is the number of garlic bulbs you must break apart and plant in order to grow enough garlic.

G = Z/(Y-1)

Plugging in my values, G = 365/(5-1), or 91.25, which I round up to 92. Checking my math: 92 bulbs contain on average 460 cloves, each of which will grow into a bulb. If I harvest 460 bulbs, and subtract the 365 bulbs I intend to eat, I’m left with 95 bulbs for planting next year. The extra three bulbs, a bonus, are the result of rounding up from 91.25.

After that brain-cramping mathematical marathon, planting the garlic is the easy part.

Note: If you want some Romanian Garlic seed, David Ronniger has it. He can be reached at Camas Natural Food Store in Hot Springs, Mont., (406) 741-2148.

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