Great Garlic & Ravishing Ramps
How to Grow Garlic
Chatham County Farm Bureau Member Harry LeBlanc has been eating a clove or two of raw garlic every day for years for good health. “It’s a virtual panacea as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “It has antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties.” LeBlanc says that might have something to do with why he never gets sick. And there might be truth to that. Garlic has been used for its medicinal purposes for more than 5,000 years. Throughout history, it’s been used to treat everything from the common cold, to acne, to high cholesterol. It’s even known to be a natural mosquito repellent. North Carolina is a hot bed for growing garlic. Warm fall weather followed by a mild cold period and then the long days and warm temperatures of springtime are exactly what the garlic plant requires to grow best. LeBlanc discovered this when he purchased a case of garlic from a local market, planted some of the cloves and watched them prosper. After planting it in September, by May he had enough garlic for his family to enjoy and a little leftover to give away. From that harvest, he kept some of the largest cloves and planted them the following year. Before long, garlic had become a regular addition to his growing farm operation.
“It’s pretty easy to grow,” LeBlanc says. “The crop is pretty much pest-free except for the onion maggot and occasional mold.” LeBlanc grows several varieties of garlic in both the softneck and hardneck families. Softneck garlic typically has layer upon layer of cloves, whereas hardneck has cloves centered around a solid, woody scape. Softneck garlic is the most common type found in grocery stores because it is easy to grow, stores well and has a milder flavor. Once harvested, the garlic is cured for several weeks and can then be stored. “You cure it to help it keep longer,” LeBlanc says. “When the greens have turned papery, it’s cured. It takes two to four weeks, but once it’s cured, it will last all the way through the winter.” LeBlanc sets aside some of the larger cloves for replanting during the fall; the rest he sells or gives to his CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). According to the Polk County Extension Office, Italian and New York White Neck varieties of softneck garlic and German Extra Hardy hardneck garlic grow best in North Carolina. North Carolina garlic is typically sold directly to the consumer at roadside stands and farmers markets and typically brings $0.85 to $1.20 per pound.
Where to Find Ramps
Ramp sightings signal the passage into spring for many mountain families. After a long, cold winter, even before the trees have begun to bud, the emergence of broad, green ramp leaves from the soil is a welcome sight. Ramps are wild leeks—a sort of cross between garlic and onion—that grow in high altitudes. “Ramps are in the onion and garlic family,” says Smokey Mountain Native Plants Association Chair Beverly Whitehead, a Graham County Farm Bureau Member. “But, just like wild onions are different from spring onions, are different from yellow onions, are different from garlic, ramps are unique.” “People raised on ramps wait expectantly all year for ramps, because there is nothing like it,” Whitehead says. “It’s sweet, savory and pungent all at the same time.” This finicky plant takes roughly seven years from planting to fully mature and produce seeds.
“Ramps grow in deep, intense shade on the north slope of mountains, not land that is usually cropped,” says Whitehead. “It is considered a non-timber forest product. If you think of timber as a crop, the people that grow timber have a long-term timber management plan, and that sometimes takes 10–15 years to establish. Ramps take a shorter period of time on the same land.” Once the ramps are established, they can be harvested without destroying the root system and will grow back. On average, the plants last about 40 years. “It’s a long-term, generational project, but in seven years you’d have something you can crop every year,” Whitehead says. On average, a one-gallon bag of ramps typically sells for about $60. Ramps sprout and show above ground for only a few weeks at the beginning of spring and then die back until the next year. It is one of very few plants that bloom in spring and flower in late summer.
Because of their regular appearance at the beginning of spring, many mountain communities honor the first sightings with a festival or celebration. Festivals and dinners in Cherokee, Buladean, Robbinsville and Cullasaja are some of the more popular celebrations in the North Carolina mountains. Diners at these celebrations enjoy a wide variety of foods prepared with ramps—everything from fried potatoes and ramps to ramp hushpuppies and ramp corn bread. Whitehead says that ramps are very versatile. “You can use them in anything you put onion or garlic in.” “A lot of people continue to raise their own food and forage in the mountains,” Whitehead says. “It’s a big deal to get the family together and gather the first fresh greens of the year.”