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Home garlic is easy to grow and great in the kitchen

Sheila Toomey

Those of us who garden primarily for pleasure and grow mostly flowers and shrubs have occasional pangs of conscience over our lackluster sustainability practices.

"Sustainability" is today's buzz-word for growing your own food organically and with as much recycling of resources as possible.

It's a good thing, but perhaps not a realistic goal for weekend urban gardeners with limited time and little interest in farming.

Still, there is something delightful about stepping out the back door and cutting a bunch of lettuce leaves for tonight's dinner salad.

Even if you're not a vegetable gardener, you really should plant some lettuce. Now. It's incredibly easy.

All you need is an old planter -- a plastic utility tub with holes in the bottom will do -- 6 inches of whatever dirt you're using for your garden and a packet of mixed lettuce seeds.

They're sold under lots of names: Meclun, Kaleidoscope, Allstar Gourmet mix, etc. (Far North Garden Supply has a nice selection).

Stick the tub of planted seeds in any sunny spot, fertilize it now and then, don't let it dry out too much (fat chance this year).

In a month you'll be snipping salad with your scissors. There's still time for one, probably two, crops.

For something a bit more adventuresome, consider garlic. A few years ago in an Alaska Press article, Ari LeVaux wrote: "Many claim to love garlic, though you wouldn't know it by looking at the crap in their kitchens: cluster bulbs of odd-sized, shriveled cloves, some of them sprouting with wispy, sticky peels and caustic, one-dimensional flavor."

Bonnie Lembo, who has gardened downtown for years with imagination and a sense of adventure, grows several garlic varieties.

Just a taste of one still immature flower stalk suggests LeVaux is right. The home-grown variety has a deep, complex flavor, a universe away from the grocery store stuff.

And unlike some exotic herbs, it's something most of us are likely to actually use.

In Alaska, you plant it in the fall and harvest the following summer. So pick a spot now and start getting ready.

Garlic is a bulb. The "seed" is a single clove.

There are two broad categories of garlic, hardneck and softneck, but many cultivated varieties.

A brief review of experts suggests hardneck works best here, but there's lots of information online so check it out for yourself.

Lembo started by planting cloves from ordinary garlic she bought at the state fair, but switched to special cold weather varieties from Territorial Seed Co. and got better results.

She grows German Red, Nordic Hammer and Northern White. Music and Chesnook Red also get good reviews.

Seed bulbs will be a one-time purchase. When you harvest your first crop of full-grown garlic, you will take the largest clove from each bulb and plant it for next season.

The experts say Alaskans should plant garlic in the fall, after the first frost but while you can still work the dirt.

The bulbs will grow for a little while, until they freeze.

They like well-worked soil with compost mixed in pre-planting, so best to get the bed ready ahead of time. Mulching is recommended both to slightly slow down the freezing process and to help stave off thaws during the winter that produce those deadly grow-refreeze cycles.

"If garlic isn't frozen, it's growing," Lembo said.

Clear off the mulch in spring.

Garlic flower stems are called "scapes." They shoot up and curl into a large, graceful circle.

Lembo and her husband cut these and sauté them. They're like fat green onions and taste great.

Cutting them also helps increase the size of the garlic bulbs by redirecting the plant's energy back underground.

There's some downside to growing garlic: It's not a pretty plant -- stalky and floppy rather than bushy and shrub-like. And it hates weeds, so keep them out of the bed.

It likes even moisture, but doesn't want to be "wet, wet, wet," Lembo said, casting a concerned eye on her rain-soaked plants.

The upside of growing your own garlic is a new gardening experience and a supply of garlic better than anything you've ever bought.

If you're a cook, or just a garlic lover, you owe it to yourself.

Daily News correspondent