GREAT BARRINGTON -- When Joan Sussman talks about growing garlic, she might be describing a love affair. She had been gardening happily enough.
"Then I discovered garlic," she says, as though all other plants turned out to be poor substitutes for the real thing.
After four years of garlic growing, she still describes it with the enthusiasm of one just falling in love: "It's magic to me. You take dirt, plant a clove of garlic, and you get a bulb."
Her first patch of garlic grew in the community garden in Great Barrington behind what was then the Nutrition Center (which has since moved to Pittsfield). She tilled horse manure into the soil, planted eight varieties of garlic and mulched them with peat.
When she saw the big cloves she harvested with the German White variety, she settled on growing only German White. Now, four years later, she has expanded from that original plot to area four or five times larger, almost all of it planted with her beloved German White.
This year she harvested 48 pounds of garlic. Next year she expects even more as she has taken over another abandoned plot in the garden.
She's experimenting this year with tilling in "mushroom dirt," the soil that mush room growers get rid of after growing mushrooms in it for several years.
She calls herself "a farmer wannabe." With a small garden, she can only grow small amounts, so while her garlic has made it into dishes at local restaurants, she sells it only for special occasions. She can't produce the quantities that restaurants or grocery stores need. She sometimes cans and sells pickles, but in very small quantities. She cans more for the pleasure of pulling a jar of tomatoes or peaches off the shelf in the middle of January.
Sussman has a unique way of drying her garlic. She spreads it on racks her husband made for her in her car. She drives around doing her errands, leaving her car in the sun, and after a couple days the garlic is ready to be bagged in brown paper bags that she labels: "little bulbs for eating and giving away, big ones for planting." She claims her car does not smell from this.
Growing garlic is not so much a gastronomical activity for Sussman as philosophical, social, even political.
"It's the gift that keeps giving," she said.
A clove becomes a bulb; the eight pounds she planted last November became the 48 pounds she harvested this July.
She likens herself to John ny Appleseed in her enthusiasm for garlic. If you will plant it, she will give you garlic to plant. She tells of giving her nephew, who lives in Slovakia, some of her Ger man White. In Slovakia, she explains, everyone has a garden patch. But her nephew had the biggest, most beautiful garlic on the street.
"He was the envy of the neighborhood," she said.
It's a social issue, too, she added. There is a big need for food; many people need to grow food to have enough to eat. So when woodchucks and deer eat their crops, it can be devastating. That's why, she said, everyone should grow extra and contribute it to local food banks. All gardeners should always plant an extra row of whatever they grow.
"It's in the Torah," she said.
She believes farmers and gardeners should leave food in their garden for hungry people to take, so they don't have to ask for it.
"I've never been to Mc Donald's," she said with pride. She believes in "slow food," knowing where your food is coming from. When her son was growing up and asked to go to McDonald's, Sussman took him to a local eatery and got him "a real hamburger."
"If you're going to eat, eat the real thing," she said.
She is proud to tell that her son, now grown, is a "foodie."
On Sunday, Sussman will be offering a workshop on planting garlic and making pickles. It will begin at noon in the community garden, where she has already strung lines to guide the planting.
"I like rows," she explained.
Though Sussman spent most of her adult life as a photographer, she acknowledges that gardening and growing garlic is becoming her life. The main thing she photographs at this point is -- garlic.
What: ‘How to Make Grandma Sadie's Pickles,' Joan Sussman will offer a workshop on planting garlic and making pickles
When: On Sunday at noon
Where: In the community garden behind the former Nutrition Center at 94 West Ave., Great Barrington
Information: Call to reserve a spot, (413) 329-0726.