For centuries garlic has been valued for its pungent flavor and revered for its medicinal qualities, earning the ancient plant a place as a staple in countless kitchens across the globe. The unmistakable aroma makes my mouth water and if your household is anything like mine, you always have at least a bulb or two of garlic on hand.
Garlic was one of the very first crops ever planted at Joe’s Gardens, and it’s a quintessential part of their farmstand offerings. In fact, their Italian Silver variety was brought to Bellingham by Joe himself in the early 1900s.
“We’ve had the seed ever since Joe brought it from Italy in the 20s and we keep propagating it every year,” shared Joe’s Gardens Co-Owner, Nathan Weston. He and his brother, Jason, are the farm’s caretakers now. Their parents, Carl and Karol Weston, bought Joe’s Gardens in 1983 and passed operations onto their sons in 2007. But while times and ownership have changed, much about this family-owned and operated farm has stayed the same over its nearly 100-year history, including that iconic garlic.
“This is one of our legacy crops,” Nathan explained. “It’s very distinctive to Joe’s.” Most garlic consumers will find in grocery stores is a hardneck variety, which has to do with the stiffness of the stalk that grows from its head of cloves. Joe’s Italian Silver variety is a softneck garlic, which has a few distinct advantages.
“First off, it’s an excellent keeping garlic,” said Nathan. “A hardneck garlic will last maybe three to four months before it starts to go, but this will last nine to ten months. A lot of our customers will have their garlic into May or even June. The other really cool thing about a softneck garlic is that you can braid it. So our designated braiders, Lore and Peggy, go through and braid it.”
“I love it,” shared designated braider, Peggy Weston. “It’s my favorite thing we do.”
You can hang the braid of garlic in your kitchen for easy access to the so-called “stinking rose” any time you need a clove. “And another nice thing about this garlic is how large the cloves are, which makes it easier for cooking,” Nathan said.
Joe’s Gardens used to grow their garlic right on their Bellingham farm, but the demand for this quintessential crop outpaced their space. “In the old days we grew probably a tenth of what we grow now,” shared Nathan. How much garlic does Joe’s grow? Last year they planted 60,000 cloves on four acres of land in Whatcom County.
“A lot of work goes into this garlic,” said Nathan. “We’ll sort what we’ve harvested for seeds and end up pulling out 10,000 bulbs of garlic.” These heads of garlic won’t be as large as the ones sold in their farm stand, but they will be perfect in shape and style because good genes beget good future crops. Those bulbs are bundled up and stored for the winter.
“And once we get into January or February there’s always this one week window of weather when it’s dry for five or six days. We’ll have a little wind and the soil dries out just a bit,” said Nathan. “Then we haul all the garlic out of storage and separate it into each individual clove. Every four inches we drop a little clove in.”
“The big difference between growing it here and growing it out in the county is that out there it’s sandy soil,” said Nathan. “It doesn’t compact down and you get bigger bulbs. It’s also a lot easier to dig. We have a tractor that lifts each bulb up and sets it on the ground.” Back before they expanded their garlic crop, picking was all done by mattocks – a pickaxe with a shovel end on it. “With each bulb you’d have to go under it to try and scoop it out and the soil would be rock hard. And if you hit a bulb – my god! Joe would be so mad.”
Once the garlic is harvested it’s loaded into trucks and brought back to Joe’s Gardens to be washed and dried in their greenhouses. The dried bulbs that aren’t saved for seed are then cut off their stalks or braided and sold in their on-site farmstand.
“I think this is probably the most iconic crop that we grow,” said Nathan. “It’s our legacy. We hope this seed goes on and on.”
You can find garlic bulbs and braids starting in late summer at the Joe’s Gardens retail farmstand at 3110 Taylor Avenue in Bellingham (open March through mid-October).