After a yearlong variety trial, the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Alabama Extension team up to promote the benefits of planting garlic in our own backyards
By Mindy Keyes Black
Throughout the South and across the country, “farm-to-table” and “locally grown” have become synonymous with a renewed appreciation for fruits and vegetables raised close to home and harvested at their peak. In Alabama, demand for local produce led to a tenfold increase in the number of farmers markets and farm stands statewide (from 17 to 174) between 1999 and 2020. Grocery stores continue to enhance their offerings, and shoppers are choosing local—for health and nutrition, environmental sustainability, and garden-fresh flavor.
Search as you might amid the beloved Chilton County peaches, summer sweet corn, and heirloom tomatoes—you’ll find many fewer options for locally sourced garlic. Believed to have been cultivated by humans for close to 5,000 years, garlic is currently grown by only 34 Alabama producers and has a production footprint of just 7 acres across the state. Instead, much of the garlic (82%) consumed in Alabama, as with most states, comes from California or China, traveling thousands of miles to get to our kitchens. (The United States is the No. 1 garlic importer in the world.)
The Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) see an opportunity to change this dynamic. In 2021, thanks to a $20,000 Specialty Crop Block Grant administered by the United States Department of Agriculture and awarded through the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries, ACES and the Friends joined forces to test 33 garlic varieties at the Bruno Vegetable Garden at Birmingham Botanical Gardens and two other test sites to identify cultivars that perform well in Alabama gardens.
The three-year trial will continue through summer 2023, says Dr. Tyler Mason, director of education and visitor experience with the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens, who had the idea to apply for the grant while enjoying a meal with friends featuring broccoli roasted with garlic.
“Garlic is really an ideal crop, whether you farm commercially or have a small raised bed at home,” says Mason. “Garlic is planted in November and harvested in May, so it does not interfere with popular summer and fall crops, and it requires just a small amount of space, so anyone can benefit from growing it. You just need a row by your fence and you can have garlic for the year and then some.”
Results from the trial will be shared with commercial producers and home gardeners through educational programming and outreach. Already, there are some clear varietal winners for Alabama gardens: ‘Purple Glazer,’ “Inchelium Red,’ and ‘Romanian Red,’ to name a few.
Alabama farmers and consumers, he says, will be the real winners. “We want commercial producers to know which varieties are top performers in terms of quality and yield so they can make choices that are rooted in research when they seek to diversify their crops. We also want to encourage Alabamians at home to grow and eat more vegetables. Just like our favorite tomatoes, fresh garlic has a fantastic flavor profile that, when harvested and enjoyed straight out of our gardens, can’t be beat.”
Enjoy learning about our programs? Read more stories in the fall 2022 issue of The Garden Dirt, the award-winning quarterly newsletter of the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Become a member of the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens and receive future issues of The Garden Dirt and other great benefits. Thank you for supporting the Gardens and all that it makes possible through your annual membership, donations, and plant sale purchases!