My first act of spring is a real no-brainer: Dig a shallow hole, drop in a clove of garlic and walk away. No pain, big gain. Come fall, that sliver of garlic will have grown into a handsome bulb, just waiting to be minced in a meat dish.

It's that simple. Garlic is so easy to grow, you'd have to be batty not to have it in your garden. Unless you're a vampire.

Garlic is the perfect plant for rookie gardeners, an idiot-proof choice for beginners. Even those who mistakenly plant the cloves upside-down, as I once did, are rewarded with harvests: The topsy-turvy garlic somehow manages to right itself underground, a remarkable feat for a legendary herb.

Is there anything this plant cannot do? Long touted as both a medicinal aid and a natural pesticide, garlic has been used to ward off everything from cancer to cholera to carrot flies.

The ancient Chinese raised garlic to treat heart ailments and lower blood cholesterol. The Egyptians believed it cured tumors; the English used it to soothe earaches. This mundane little bulb saved lives in both world wars, when medics used garlic juice to cleanse combat wounds and stave off infection. Its high sulfur content makes crushed garlic a potent antibiotic.

Garlic is an important crop for injury-prone gardeners like myself. Growing garlic is like having an underground medicine cabinet. On those occasions when I maim myself with garden tools, it's comforting to know that help is just a spadeful of dirt away.

Garlic's disciples are legion; no surprise after 5,000 years of the plant's cultivation. Slaves ate slews of it while building the pyramids. The Romans swore it improved their prowess on the battlefield and in the boudoir. English soldiers consumed garlic during the Great Crusades, when the Muslims were said to be frightened more by the enemy's breath than its armor.

Wild garlic was a staple in the lives of Indians. Early settlers planted bulbs from the old country. Pioneers heading west through the mountains kept garlic at hand, which they placed in their horses' nostrils to counter the effects of high altitude.

When they reached California, they found gold . . . and garlic. The town of Gilroy, Calif., which calls itself "The Garlic Capital of the World," celebrates its annual harvest with a festival in which a garlic queen is crowned. At arm's length, no doubt.

Organic gardeners praise the herb's ability to deter pests, lining their vegetable beds with garlic plantings that discourage all types of vermin. Tomatoes, cabbages and carrots especially profit from its presence. Garlic is said to repel aphids from roses, hungry deer from saplings and moles from fruit trees.

Research indicates that spreading garlic "paste" on certain flower bulbs, such as gladioluses, makes them sprout 20 percent sooner.

Plant garlic in early spring or late fall. The latter effort produces larger bulbs, if the plants are mulched heavily in winter. But both methods yield harvests superior in taste to supermarket fare.

For best results, purchase solid white bulbs from a seed company. Garlic sold in groceries may be laced with anti-sprouting chemicals that inhibit germination.

Separate each bulb into sections, or cloves, without removing the papery covering. Large cloves usually produce large bulbs. (The opposite is true for garlic's cousin, the onion.) Plant cloves 2 inches deep and 4 inches apart, pointy end up, in sunny, well-drained soil as soon as the ground can be worked. Raised beds are best; this herb hates wet feet.

Garlic grows only to 18 inches and is easily interplanted with other crops.

Remove white flower heads as they appear: Though attractive, the blooms only weaken the bulb. However, you can snip a few tender leaves from each garlic plant without hurting the harvest. The shoots taste great in salads.

Water plants only until the tops start to yellow. Harvest spring garlic in fall when the leaves have turned golden. Fall garlic is ready by the following summer. First-dug bulbs have a milder taste and a shorter shelf life.

Spread garlic outside on a table or tray to dry for several days, until the skin is crinkly. Place bulbs in a cool, airy basement or shed. Do not refrigerate them. Stored properly, home-grown garlic may keep for as much as a year.

Smart gardeners carve up their largest bulbs and recycle them back into the garden, thereby preserving their garlic's lineage. I admire such discipline. But I haven't the heart to bury so tasty a crop. When it comes to garlic, I always eat what I sow.

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