Book review: Engeland, Ron L(1991). Growing great garlic: The definitive guide for organic gardeners and small farmers. Filaree Productions, Okanogan, WA. 217 pp. (Read other reviewsof this book on Amazon.com.)

I like to experiment with my crops, trying new types or varieties to see what they are like. In November, I planted eight garlic cloves, just to see what would happen. Then I started reading Engeland’s book on garlic. I’m glad I did, as it was helpful within weeks. Five of my cloves popped up right away, but three did not. I wondered if I had planted them upside down. Sure enough, Engeland warns that novices often make this mistake and explains the correct way to plant cloves. His description of the growing cycle of garlic is also helpful, as I would have harvested my experimental crop much too soon. So, this book is a good one for me.

Is it a good book for you? Think you might like to try your hand at growing garlic? Then this book is for you. It is loaded with information about garlic, how to grow it and how to harvest it. Think you might like to grow garlic commercially? Then this book is for you. It is a goldmine of information about commercial varieties of garlic, how much a small-scale farmer can grow, how and when to harvest, how to store your crop and, last but not least, how to market your premium garlic as a niche-market crop.

Finally, you don’t need to have any interest in garlic to appreciate one of this book’s biggest strengths. If you are interested in becoming a good farmer, one who knows his crop inside and out, one who wants to practice excellent agroecology, then this book is for you, too. It provides a realistic case study in what it takes to be a successful niche-market farmer. It’s not just passion, but pragmatism and a willingness to learn. Engeland’s book provides a case study in these practices.

Let’s start with the garlic. He begins with a brief history of garlic and its varieties. This lays a foundation for the rest of the book, because cultivation, harvest, storage and market practices vary by type of garlic. He breaks the garlic species (Allium sativum) into two subspecies (ophioscorodon and sativum), then provides detailed descriptions and drawings of four varieties of commonly grown commercial garlic: two “orphios” (Rocambole and Continental) and two sativums (Artichoke and Silverskin).

Generally, garlic is a hardy plant, but it does better in some soils and climates than others. A chapter on Sites and Soils covers this information in depth, followed by chapters on fertilization, use of manures and weed control. Engeland’s patience and belief in following what are now called agroecological practices come through clearly when he says it may take a year or two to prepare soil for planting garlic.

Garlic reproduces vegetatively from cloves, not from seed, so another chapter focuses on how to select the best cloves for planting. Garlic also grows slowly, taking about nine months for a clove to grow shoots, leaves and a new bulb. So, other chapters detail cultivation practices from fall planting through winter and spring, then into summer harvest. Chapters on Harvesting and Curing and on Storage are also useful for home gardeners.

However, the book is not targeted at home gardeners, but at people who want to produce high-quality, niche-market garlic for sale, as an alternative to industrial scale, mass-market garlic. Thus, the book also provides readers technical information and insights into pests and disease management, cleaning, grading, packing and marketing their crops. In short, this book is a time-saving primer on gourmet garlic production and marketing.

But, this book is more than that. Whether or not you are interested in growing garlic (at home or commercially), this book stands as a case study in what it takes to be a small-scale grower and marketer using good (i.e., ecology sound) agricultural practices.

Key to it all is his experimental approach. While I conduct my home-garden experiments with different crops, Engeland experiments with different practices. Learning about crops and which practices work best is an ongoing process of testing new methods and ideas. Rather than rely on grower folklore, Engeland describes throughout the book how he has prepared soil, cultivated his crop, timed his harvests and stored his bulbs, all while testing new approaches.

For example, some growers started freezing their harvested crops to improve storage. So, he experimented with part of his crop, testing not only freezing, but different durations of freezing. He discusses his results in light of the additional costs of freezing.  The book is filled with similar little experiments he has run to try to improve his practices.

This willingness to take risks with part of his crop and to experiment and track his results, all with a vigilant eye on costs and revenues, is what it takes to be a good farmer. This is what it takes to adapt and improve. This book thus provides a useful reality check for dreamers–like myself–who think about becoming small-scale farmers.

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