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Garlic is an oft-discussed, misunderstood but widely planted vegetable. It has many medicinal uses and has a rich folkloric history that tells of garlic's power to ward off vampires and maladies. It is used extensively in cooking and is enjoying increased popularity as a seasoning. The juice is also used as an organic insect repellent. Garlic is a member of the allium family, which includes onions, leeks and other savory bulb crops and many flowering bulbs.

Writing about garlic at this time of year may seem inappropriate, but now is the preferred planting time. Garlic planted in the fall is more productive and produces better than bulbs planted in the spring. Planting procedures are the same for other kinds of spring flowering bulbs. They are planted during late September or October, and during the winter the root systems develop although the plants don't grow much on top. By spring, the plant is well established and makes rapid growth as the weather warms. Large vigorous tops are necessary to produce the large bulbs.There are two types of garlic grown in home gardens. The first is Allium sativum, the garlic used most often in cooking. Allium ampeloprasm is generally called elephant garlic and is closely related to the leeks. Elephant garlic produces a much larger bulb with milder flavor. Elephant garlic can produce giant clusters weighing as much as two pounds and reaching softball size. Garlic typically forms cloves, but spring-planted garlic often yields small round bulbs instead. Leave them in the ground or replant them in the fall, and the rounds produce cloves the following summer. Individual garlic cloves will enlarge and produce a cluster of 10 or more cloves.

Garlic is not produced from seed. The bulbs or cloves used for planting are available from local garden centers or can be ordered from catalogs. Fresh garlic bulbs from grocery stores also can be planted. Garlic produces long, flat leaf blades rather than round, tubular leaves common to most onions.

Garlic grows well in most well-drained soils. It requires adequate nutrients, so mix the fertilizer into the soil prior to planting. Separate the bulbs carefully and plant only the larger cloves. Grow them in full sunlight and remove competing weeds, or the size will be greatly diminished. Their shallow root systems are easily damaged by cultivation, so mulch them freely to assist in controlling weeds. Grow them closely together, three to four inches apart in rows six to eight inches apart. Elephant garlic requires almost twice that spacing.

The cloves should be planted at least 2 inches beneath the soil surface. Planting direction is not critical, since the original clove disintegrates as the new plant emerges. Garlic planted now will be ready for harvest next summer to reward you with a great seasoning and a vegetable with many other purported properties. Raised beds make an ideal place to grow these bulbs. Garlic oil is a natural insect repellent, so pest control is generally not necessary.

There are also a number of multiplier or perennial onions that can be planted now. Egyptian onions, white multiplier onions are among those that can be planted now for harvest next spring. Shallots are another favorite multiplying onion. They have a mild, garliclike flavor. The tops can be used as green onions, while the bulbs can be used like garlic. Garlic chives were not a hit in my garden. They seeded profusely and soon became a worrisome weed. I eliminated them promptly to reduce that threat.

Perhaps the most spectacular ornamental allium is the allium giganteum, but other alliums are also widely grown as flowers. Many of these were used by American Indians as food long before they became popular in our gardens.

You may not be worried about vampires and other problems, but a little garlic planted now will add a lot of zest for seasoning and other needs next spring. Get them in the ground as you plant your tulips and they will reward you with a harvest the following summer.

- UTAH'S TOP FLORAL DESIGNERS judge the Standard Garden Show, Sugarhouse Garden Center, 1602 E. 2100 South, Saturday, Oct. 3, 1-5 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 4, 12 noon to 5 p.m. Free to the public. For anyone wishing to submit entry, call 582-9342 or 277-4162.