October is the month of ghosts and goblins, of witches and vampires. In short, it's a good time to plant garlic.

Garlic long has been a pungent tool to ward off evil spirits. Garliplays the same role in the garden, defending plants against aphids and other insects that would suck the lifeblood from my FTC crops, Dracula-style.

But garlic's reputation against vampires and garden vermihardly warrants its recent surge in popularity. America's consumption of fresh garlic has doubled in a decade as modern medicine confirms what the ancients knew: Garlic is good for what ails you.

The Greeks and Romans prescribed it for wounds and infectionsA Babylonian ruler had 400,000 bushels of the stuff delivered to court. Garlic has been cultivated carefully for 5,000 years. A bloody Athenian war began when one man cut through a neighbor's garlic field to get to market.

Garlic was a staple in the diet of slaves who built the pyramids. When their garlic rations were slashed, the slaves went on strike.

This banal little bulb has been used to treat everything from coughs to cancer, and from heart disease to herpes. Taken in large doses, some studies suggest, garlic may lower one's cholesterol and blood pressure. The Chinese prescribe garlic remedies for meningitis. Europeans take it for hemorrhoids. Garlic is called "Russian penicillin" in Siberia, where the cloves sometimes pass for currency.

Garlic reportedly cures warts, heals scorpion bites and repels fleas and ticks. During World War II, the Navy fed raw garlic to its mosquito-plagued forces in the Pacific. Meanwhile, back home, Eleanor Roosevelt was eating three chocolate-covered garlic balls daily to improve her memory.

But America didn't go gaga over garlic for nearly half a century. Now upscale folks are choosing health over breath. One can eat garlic ice cream, drink garlic wine and wear garlic jewelry. One can even be married in the Garlic Wedding Chapel, amid vases of fresh garlic, in the town of Gilroy, Calif.

Much of the nation's garlic is raised near Gilroy, where farmers have begun patrolling their fields to thwart thieves during harvest. This year, one grower lost 3 tons of garlic in a single night. It was stolen from under his nose, so to speak.

The country is so garlic-conscious that several Asian nations have dived in, dumping their garlic in the United States at below-market prices.

A member of the lily family, garlic originated in Asia. It is easily grown from plump, healthy bulbs sold in supermarkets or garden centers. Garlic can be planted in spring or fall, but the latter is preferred if plants can take root before winter. A leisurely grower, garlic will reach maturity next summer. Mulch the plants with leaves or straw in colder climates.

Divide the garlic bulb into cloves, without trimming their papery coats. Plant the cloves in well-drained soil, 2 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Each clove will produce a new bulb. Five plants per person is plenty.

Keep the garlic bed well-weeded and support the 2-foot stems to prevent breakage. Pests are no threat; insects give garlic a wide berth.

For large bulbs, remove flower heads when they appear. Harvest garlic when stems wither and brown. Refrain from watering plants during their final month of growth, as the bulbs are sensitive to mold.

Dry the bulbs several days in shade. Remove stalks and roots and store garlic in a cool basement. The bulbs should keep for at least six months. (The bulbs won't smell. Garlic is virtually odorless until cut, bruised or accidentally torched. Seventy years ago, 13 boxcars of freshly harvested garlic caught fire, causing the "voluntary" evacuation of an entire California town.)

To relieve the smell of garlic breath, eat a sprig of fresh parsley beforehand. After? Drink lemon juice. Or chew some coffee beans.

Garlic is among my favorite vegetables. I like to rub the inside of a salad bowl with a fresh clove before adding the lettuce. This technique is certainly preferable to that of Queen Victoria's chef, who would chew on a clove of fresh garlic, and then breathe on Her Majesty's salad.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad