Ben Chung is obsessed with garlic. He lives in East Orleans with his wife, six kids, and uncle, and he works as a dentist. But when he’s not cleaning teeth, he’s outside working in his garden, where he grows over fifty kinds of garlic.
“What you’re seeing here is garlic,” he says, showing me the garden. “This is the newly sprouted garlic. We left them in in the summer. The idea was that, if you pull up your garlic and it’s really small, don’t throw it out, put it back in.”
If you’ve ever grown garlic, you know what Chung is talking about—you plant it as single cloves in the fall, and by early summer these have grown into whole heads of garlic. But for reasons that sometimes seem mysterious, some cloves turn into huge heads of garlic, and others don’t get big at all. Chung says don’t pull the tiny ones, just let them overwinter in the garden again.
“The best place to store garlic is in the ground,” he says. “So if you’re not going to use it, put it back in.”
I ask him how he decides when to plant garlic.
“I would say there’s two types,” he explains. “If you’re getting the store garlic, they’re a soft neck—you plant them immediately, don’t think about it, because they need more time in California, or some place else, where they’re grown. They have more light, better sunlight, and longer time. We don’t, so get them in first. But for hardneck, it’s about now. “
In general, local growers recommend planting garlic about 6-8 weeks before a hard frost. The softneck varieties Ben’s talking about generally do better in climates with hot summers and mild winters, so Cape Codders have more success with hardier garlics called hardnecks.
“Among the varieties I like the most,” says Chung, “is Chinese pink, because it’s an early maturing type. It’s usually ready by about the first part of June. That’s about a month ahead of the schedule. Typical garlic is ready by mid July and late July. So that would be Russian red, German whites. But other than that, we’re very successful with growing large elephant garlic. My best record was .86 pounds. I won three years the blue ribbon at the Barnstable County Fair.”
Point eight six pounds—that’s a garlic head the size of a softball. As for cooking garlic, Ben says most of the time, he doesn’t bother.
“I actually like to chew it raw,” he says.
How much garlic does Chung grow every year?
“I would estimate we plant anywhere between six and seven hundred plants. My entire property is covered in garlic. I mean, everywhere you see. I think it covers my entire property. We have no werewolves here.”
Ben’s passion for garlic is contagious. This year he gave me a one-year old elephant garlic to plant in my garden for harvesting next year—with any luck, maybe I’ll have a half-pounder. If you’re thinking of planting garlic, now’s the time to get it in the ground.
This piece first aired in 2017.