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This winter's reading...garlic, organic matter, and prosocial behavior

Picture is of garlic stems and roots where I cleaned/processed garlic this year. Ample fungal growth is happening all around and in the garlic litter, re-prompting me to think of garlic's relationship to the fungal kingdom and what that means for its preferred soils.

The theme of my independent research this year is universalities of biology. I’ve been intrigued by how reliant garlic is on organic matter, and also intrigued by the fact that in the wild, it grows in the same place each year. To help my own brain understand this, I sometimes anthropomorphize the garlic, or alliomorphize myself (try to picture myself as an allium species), thus the idea of universalities of biology.

We all forked off of the same original spark of life, and the mathematics of natural selection remain the same, whatever kingdom you’re in. The same way that empathic/altruistic behavior in mammals has lead to current human society, I feel that the rudimentary math of empathy and altruism remains the same in the plant and fungi kingdoms. Garlic is not simply selfishly accumulating resources in a once-off, one-year act. Too many farming or gardening manuals seem to treat plant species as this incredibly short-sighted being, completely incapable of behaving in any way that suggests a multi-year timeline. Conversely, I feel like I learn more and more about garlic, when I understand that its behavior has been shaped by the same millions of years, and is likely to be full of “pro-social” choices...things that indirectly help relatives of itself, allies of itself, in a more holistic multigenerational view. Just like how mammals have benefited when aunts and uncles and grandparents continue to play a role in a child’s development- and how by expanding our circle of empathy, society has grown from small bands of family groups, to complex villages, towns and cities, I view most plant species as being on this long slow arc towards complexity of interspecies and interfamily beneficence as well.

In the mammalian world, just think of this- think of how much higher a country’s GDP is, when crime and corruption are low. According to very shallow views of natural selection, we should be directly working for our progeny, and our progeny alone. But it turns out that being empathetic towards wider and wider circles of people, creates an ecosystem where your progeny are actually still better off, even when you only obliquely approach the question of improving their well-being. Your child will have a happier, more secure life, in a society with general, wider empathic behaviors. It’s what I tell myself when I write the school tax check, even when I have no kids in school. It’s why the “dog-eat-dog” worldview is just absolute bullshit- from a long-arc perspective.

This means that if there are things that garlic does, that don’t make sense to you, it's not the garlic’s fault. A polite way of saying “think harder, ya ape!” A Porcelain garlic making a massive, larger-than-necessary stem, doesn't make sense when you see other types making nice bulbs off of far less impressive top growth. Not if you only view a garlic bulb’s life as a once-off act.

Some skilled farmer friends of mine grow garlic in the same location year after year (no rotation!) with very little disease trouble, and in each case, they rely heavily on deciduous leaf litter, or wood chips. The common thread there is that such materials create a fungally-dominated microecosystem. A simple assumption is that the more carbon in a given material, the more fungi needed for its breakdown, compared to nitrogen (from green, fresh things), which prefers lots of microbes for an ecosystem- consisting of “grazer” herbivores consuming the nitrogen-rich materials, and predatory microbes that hunt the grazers. Coincidentally, growing garlic on bare ground, and frequently killing young weeds frequently, leads to a somewhat anemic version of this second scenario. No complex multi-year growth, with its carbon-rich cellulose and “woodyness,” means that fungi have little to nothing to feed on, and instead, nitrogen-lovers flush, and die back, as green dead weeds are incorporated in the soil on an erratic basis. My reading and research is in trying to understand why some of the best garlic is grown in fungally dominated soils- and how that connects to garlic in the wild, as an asexual crop that grows in the midst of its own debris year after year.


Part of this started in the year I pre-clipped garlic tops and let them return to the ground immediately. In some schools of thought, this is a big no-no. A big-deal university soil scientist told me under no uncertain terms that garlic materials should never be returned to where they came from. I thought in my head...how about all the roots we leave behind every time we harvest garlic? Even if you clip roots post-harvest, there was a good deal more roots in the earth, that never come into the drying shed. And the number of farmers I know who do the top-trimming in the field, and coincidentally have a fungally-dominated soil, and healthy garlic, suggests that there’s more to this. I became determined to examine this, because one of my best garlic years I ever had, was when I grew garlic a second year in a row, on a piece that had received the clipped tops of its forbearers.

*Before I forget to mention this, I must make a sidebar here and note that some people have sprayed garlic with the spent yeast from beer-making, and yeast being a fungus, it provokes an immune response that induces the garlic to fight off bad fungi. I wish I knew where I could find that study, but it was fascinating. Similarly, I’ve used shrimp and crabmeal as an amendment, because their shells are made of a biopolymer/polysaccharide (a complex sugar) called chitin. Which, coincidentally, is what the fungi kingdom evolved as its primary cell wall constituent. Plants have learned that the high presence of chitin (on land, anyway) is probably a sign of lots of fungi. Some fungi are bad for garlic- the ones that colonize living tissue and steal its resources- while many fungi are immensely good for garlic, creating symbiotic soil systems where fungus grows off of woody dead plant materials and sharply increases soil organic matter, leading to soils which leach less, soils which hold onto both nutrients and water better. Anyways...big takeaway is that garlic has more to gain than lose in a fungally dominated soil. If you don’t invite the good species in to fulfill the niches, bad ones may come to dominate anyway. Frequent tilling, and even frequent weeding with something as comparatively benign like a stirrup hoe, is death and destruction for fungal networks.

An important thing to note right now is that across the world, garlic on any remotely large scale is grown on bare ground, meaning a theoretically fungi-poor environment. It’s for the simple reason that applying leaves or straw as mulch does NOT scale well at all. Every acre of commercial garlic would need two acres of straw (I did the math once- at my generous straw application rate, it’s a two to one ratio of straw plot to garlic plot. Even being stingy would result in a one to one ratio at best). That doesn’t even remotely bring in the tree-leaf mathematics...every acre of garlic needs one or two acres of “drop zone” of unwanted tree leaves. Coincidentally, this pretty much describes a town full of people who think leaves are a nuisance to have carted off, and say, a small quarter to full acre garlic farm on its periphery. But in the garlic-for-export producing regions of the world- China, California, Argentina- the idea of growing two acres of rye or oats for every garlic plot, is just not sensible. But for small and mid-scale people, in a region not sold out to monocrop exports, this strategy should be quite doable.

At least in the North American and Asian world, I also see most mid scale garlic farmers using black or white plastic, which, again, is not a fungally dominated environment, unless the farmers are particularly amending their soil with lots of wood chips or other things before building their beds. That could be an intriguing compromise for those who need plastic for weed control on their scale, but still want to create that fungal environment. But...wood chips are a textbook thing that you’re often told to not use in this case, since the initial flush of life that arrives to consume it creates a net negative nitrogen situation. The first generations of microorganisms trying to set up shop to break down the chips use up a lot of the immediately available nitrogen, and only a bit later, create the net-positive nitrogen increase. Anyways...I totally understand why people grow on plastic- it’s largely a choice made by any farmer or gardener reaching the scale where peak weed season (June or July) is just too much for any other weed management strategy- be it bare ground or living-mulch based. 

What I’m trying to get to is that I don’t want to be dogmatic about how to grow garlic...but I can say from personal experience, the more I lean on fungally-dominated soils, the easier my life gets. The organic matter buildup creates soil that holds onto water and nutrients better. I think that bacillus subtilis is also a likely positive part of it- it’s a species that loves to consume dead grasses (ie straw) and lives in a protective microfilm of water on plant roots, protecting them from “bad actors.” I’ve kept diseases in serious check for several years in a row, since embracing the straw plan. Back when I was a garden-grower, I relied on maple and oak leaves, which also created a really excellent environment. It probably lacked serious bacillus subtilis assistance, but it was a mycorrhizal dream. Besides the freshly fallen leaves, I’d often harvest just a tiny bit of the deep multi-year leaf litter in my tree hedges, and they were clearly full of fungal hyphae (branching, root-like structures of the fungal world). To me, trying to get into the mind of garlic, from its central Asian origins, I sense that it’s meant to grow in litter. Its overwintering lifestyle, its early sprouting, its dry-season senescence (die-back), all suggest that it is meant to grow in its own died-back litter, and of whatever dry-season stubble is grown around it and on it when it has its midsummer break. It breaks through all that litter early in spring when most other species’ temperature thresholds haven’t been broken- those dormancy-breaking warm air temperatures, those nitrogen-flush-inducing increases in soil temps, etc.

What this means for me, as a farmer, is to put more value on the straw than just its role in weed control. I am, quite likely, mimicking the very environment it evolved in. Albeit on a very generous scale, since my straw application rate is probably more than what nature would do, in place, in a wild garlic patch.

It’s useful to note that garlic is a net sulfur accumulant, a net miner of sulfur. For someone selling garlic bulbs and possibly carting garlic materials off their fields, it’s a net sulfur loss, but for wild garlic, it’s mining this leach-prone, critical nutrient from deeper points in the profile (especially a mature plant with its roots at their deepest point), and storing them in its stem which rots and falls in place year after year, pulling more and more sulfur to higher points in the profile- not even to mention how it’s sequestering a lot of sulfur in its own seed piece. This is what I refer to when I want to unite my understandings of garlic’s behavior, and behaviors of the animal kingdom. It is amending its environment not just for itself, but for neighbors and descendants. I’m not saying garlic has super-complex decision-making on par with mammals- I’m just encouraging us all to put on our thinking caps when it comes to natural selection, evolution, and how cooperation is often far better than brute competition. An early read of natural selection mechanisms may create a brutal worldview that views everything as competition, but this does not really describe very many real-world systems.

Since sulfur is often a key limiting nutrient for yield, part of garlic’s symbiosis in the wild may have included increasing the richness of the soil around it, allowing largely grass species (C4 species being better than C3 species in this dry, hot midsummer dormancy I’m seeing) to grow a larger, flusher expression of itself, making a better mulch for the garlic to grow in its turn in the “shoulder months,”- the cooler months of autumn and spring, forming a useful quasi-partnership with the grasses. Coincidentally, garlic is also a C4 species- which to me suggests that even though C4 is an example of convergent evolution (the same feature/phenotype, independently arriving in many unrelated species), C4 species from many families/genera may make a happy little tag team, kicking some C3 ass out there. C4 species have a tolerance of aridity and heat, and also of low Co2 regimes, so it would make sense that pairs or trios, or more complex suites of them, would make up a tag-team, divvying the months of the year between them, for who dominates, when. Garlic, and many other alliums, doing most of their growth in autumn and spring, and some other shorter-cycle species kicking in during the summer dormancy.

The implication, for me, is that I feel that we are really fighting uphill when we grow garlic in environments other than an organic-matter-dominated, fungally-oriented one. We become more and more “in charge” of the water, the fertility, when we take the job away from the organic matter. For some people this is fine- they have routines of irrigation and fertility that mostly, if not wholly, make up for what the garlic needs. For me, though, I feel like it’s a math game. A reasonable human can work up to 70 hours a week if they need to- before serious diminishing returns kick in, while there are a total of 168 hours in every week. I have organic matter on the payroll, so to speak, 168 hours per week, working to irrigate and fertilize every moment I’m doing something else. I’m also getting old, and want to get my work weeks to be 60 hours or less. I cannot possibly put in 168 hours, especially at the price of organic matter. And the positive effects are additive- every year I rotate the garlic plot, a new area gets the immense positive of a wagonload of straw. By the 2022-2023 season, I’ll actually be returning on ground that received straw already. Coincidentally, this high OM soil also grows cover crops even better, and creates far more biomass and yield in the Three Sisters plot. You are basically kick-starting a serious positive feedback loop where the same acreage cranks out far more biomass each year. I view myself, at that point, as a carbon farm.

My plan, for the time being, is to keep garlic in rotation following the Three Sisters plot. While the squash and bean leaves are a very fast flush of surface nitrogen when they break down, the corn stalks represent more of that carbon-rich, fungal-friendly material, especially when plowed in in spring. In summer 2021, I grew a double cover crop of buckwheat on this soil (last year’s Three Sisters, now planted to 21-22 garlic), which is heavy on nitrogen, so when I plow the buckwheat in, it creates a flush of nitrogen to help kickstart the breakdown of the remaining corn material. As garlic cloves are planted in October, their early roots are reaching these rich zones of already-decomposed buckwheat, of corn material still only partially broken down. It’s good to mention that I am also working hard to perfect the timing of intersown cover crops in the corn, so when corn is plowed in, it’s also taking in more nitrogen-rich material that help make sure there’s lots of everything down there. I forget the exact dates, but roughly in August is when I had broadcast-sown (by hand), a mix of oats, rye, and clover into the plot. Despite the lack of incorporation, it germinated quite well, because the steamy, jungle-y nature of the plot ensured lots of moisture for those seeds on the surface. A daily deposit of morning dew seemed enough to break their dormancy and get their first root going. As long as their main root was reasonably ancored before a dry spell, they were alive, up and running for good.

PS...coming back to this document after first-drafting it, I’ve thought a bit more about the ideas lain out here. One thing to share is that quite obviously, we all agree that what garlic “wants” for itself is going to be different from what we want of it. As a farmer, I want a crop that has plenty of good seed stock for both myself and customers, and that the remaining bulbs are large enough to be easy to work with in the kitchen. In a word, marketable. Plenty of existing research suggests that pounds per acre yields can be increased with garlic, with near infinite expansion in plant population. The actual plant itself tolerates far higher densities than our growing systems, and markets, can tolerate. We want to handle fewer, larger bulbs, for labor/economic reasons, etc. Anyways...just when we go through these thought experiments together, let’s keep in mind that the survival of garlic as a species in the wild, or as even a select line of genetics, is a different goal from what we do when we select a line of genetics and propagate it. However, I feel like there is enough overlap in goals, that we can still leverage garlic’s natural goals for itself, in informing ourselves how to grow it in our farms and gardens. It wants to be healthy. It wants a reasonable balance of appropriate micro and macronutrients. It wants (in my current, running theory) to be in a high organic matter area, up to and including its own dead stems, etc, in the dead plant material of symbiotic or semi-symbiotic unrelated species. The further we fight against its natural inclinations, the harder we work.

All of this crazy brainstorming can get indulgent and pointless if we don’t ground it back down into a practical, actionable collection of information. For me, I want this line of research to help me think clearer about what species to use in garlic’s crop rotation, and when. I want it to help inform people’s choices in which materials they use for mulch, and when, and why. My inclination is to believe that garlic top-growth is naturally accumulating the micronutrients needed for long-term improvement in the species’ fortunes, and should therefore be returned to the ground as soon as possible, barring extreme cases like white rot or other very bad pathogens. We should also assume (warning, this will sound harsh) that when garlic is unhealthy, the bonehead in the situation is probably us, not the garlic. It was doing perfectly fine in Central Asia til we dragged it around everywhere with us, so when it fails hard, it was probably us. It doesn’t want to get sick and die, either, any more than you wanted it to. But if we pluck it from good soils and introduce it to soils it’s not suited to, and fail to supplement it for what we took from it, it can’t help but fail.

A preponderance of opinions on the internet suggest that it prefers a sandy loam- which gets more and more loamy if my organic matter theory holds. Many of the most vehement anti-straw and anti-leaf acolytes I’ve come to know (I’m talking humans here), are farming very clayish lowland soils. They’re right- those materials are probably wrong for them, unless done very carefully, with multiple years of cover cropping, raised beds, etc, to get themselves away from the danger of clay soils. Clay is beautiful stuff, but probably not what garlic evolved on. Garlic (I’m especially talking about the wild hardneck original garlics) also is used to far less precipitation than what it experiences in most human-friendly environments. All things being equal, people settle on rivers. Civilizations and general concentrations of high population are built on rivers, deltas, and coasts, which tend to be in higher rainfall areas, plain and simple. The hardneck garlic growing regions of North America- the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest, and the Northeast (and their Canadian counterparts) are all in the vicinity of at least 35 inches precip per year, and normally 50-60. I cannot understate how wildly different this is from Central Asian aridity, like 20-30 inches per year. 

Considering how C4 plants are 3 times more efficient in water use than C3 plants, it makes sense that garlic seeks to surround itself with organic matter, and why its plans for itself butt heads with the wishes of humans living, growing and selling it in regions with 2-3 times the rainfall. Clay soils, sediment-ish soils, ample rainfall...they can grow excellent garlic but there is always the chance of excess, disease, failures of one kind or another. I think these things are linked. Also, it’s important to note that once we started to breed garlic from true seed thousands of years ago, and also asexually select it for whichever types had enough epigenetic plasticity to be domesticated, we started down a path where some families of garlic may no longer be well-suited to these lines of thinking. In my opinion/experience Turbans, Artichokes, Asiatics, and to a lesser degree Silverskins fit in this category. The first three are fairly “thrifty” in their top-growth to bulb size ratio. Remember, in human terms, we often breed plants for “thrift”- we want as much of the human-usable portion, even at the expense of plant parts that would have served a use in a more wild context. We often breed things to have the minimum vegetative growth needed to support the maximum bulb-set, fruit-set, or seed-set we can get out of it. In exchange for this relationship of dependency, we truck in the outside irrigation and fertility needed to make this happen.

PS number two, I’ve also thought about the quick theory I threw out there, that garlic may have a natural symbiont in other C4 plant species. This is total conjecture (if you didn’t get those vibes already) and I would bet there’s also a great reasoning behind C3 and C4 species cooperating, as much as C3/C3 or C4/C4 pairings. Photosynthesizing at different bands of temperature from each other, and utilizing water resources at different efficiencies, they could comfortably coexist in my mind, in a yin-yang bicameral-legislature kind of way- one dominating at night or cool mornings, another in daytime, etc. Something super complex could even be happening if they have different respiration timings in their Co2 cycles, since that is one of the nifty differentiating features of C3 and C4 plants (C4 plants tolerating lower concentrations of Co2).

PS number three (at this point, I am simply reacting to my own blog post, I know)- since I brought up this idea of garlic evolving towards a multi-generational and even possible symbiotic existence with some grass species, I want to specifically bring up fruits as an example of plants which may not be as concerned about what leaf litter they leave behind. Most fruit is intended to get eaten by animal species and carried to new locations. They’ve evolved to often break dormancy after being in an animal’s stomach, and colonize relatively new terrain. Similarly, wind-borne seeds follow the same idea. In that case, there may be less incentive for the plant to produce biomass for its descendants. That being said, plenty of plants use their own biomass production to create allelopathic agents (chemicals that inhibit the germination or growth of competitor species) and other things favorable to their own continuance. But only some, like garlic, are so guaranteed to be growing right at the very feet of last year’s growth, which leads me to think it probably has “systems in place” for handling this situation.

One could also contrast garlic- domesticated long ago, and only lightly tinkered with since those first breeding events, with that of corn- which is being tinkered with year after year after year, both by GMO / high tech efforts and by the choices of millions of smallholding farmers shaping their landraces each year. The more frequently messed-with species are further and further from the wild types they came from, making analogies and lessons between their wild and domesticated forms less and less helpful. I spend far less time awake at night, wondering how I should improve my corn crop, by brainstorming what wild teosinte is up to, down in central Mexico, than I do with garlic. Not that it wouldn’t make for a very fun thought experiment- but I strongly suspect it’ll bear less intellectual fruit. Corn is almost helpless without constant intervention, making seeds that are, from a wild perspective, way too abundant, with no sensible dispersal strategy other than human trade routes. I don’t read too heavily into what the corn plant is doing, as it’s been so heavily hauled away from its wild roots, in every sense of the word.

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