German Hardy garlic from bulbs purchased (ostensibly as food) from NYC’s Union Square Farmer’s Market about 3 years ago. Yes, my suitcase was fairly stinky. This is what I look for when it’s nearing harvest: bottom 3-5 leaves browned and an overall “weary” look to the plant. I should note, though, that not all my plants have reached this stage, even if I planted them at the same time last November. The New Year’s Day cloves for example won’t be ready for another month or more. I dry them for a week or two on screens spanning the beds in the greenhouses.
What is it about this home-grown crop that makes a gardener foolishly go on a quest of The Perfect Bulb? It turns us otherwise carefree folk into obsessive Mother Hens, clucking and agonizing amongst the fronds as to is it big yet? is it as big as it will get? what if I pick it too early?
That portion of the garden is somehow sacrosanct, stored-food-wise. Such flavor packed into these husk-wrapped clumps, such promise of future meals changed from “meh” to “heeeyyy!” And most gardeners, once they try growing garlic, do realize that The Perfect(ly Large) Bulb is really just a goal, not a year-to-year reality. Or if they do grow plenty of large ones, they realize there’s no way they’ll use them up before they go sprouty and sulfurous and gross. In other words, most gardeners who grow garlic are pursuing an idea.
They also probably have long memories. Many are the February days when I am stuck peeling the tiniest of cloves for our meals from the tiniest of heads, those heads that I *saved* for this purpose. Yes, it’s then I get wistful for the “idea” of Perfect Bulb garlic.
But back to this quest. There is nothing at all wrong with wanting large, beautiful heads of garlic grown on your own patch of earth. And those in the know do know it often takes years to procure, cultivate, and harvest those varieties that will perform the best for their portion of the planet. It’s a fun quest, actually; where would we be without garlic?
She’s going on a snipe scape hunt. She’s 4′-2″ so this gives you an indication about how tall the plants can get in the greenhouses. They’re planted in rows of 6, 6″ apart, in rows 6″ apart so…72 bulbs per bed
My problem with this pursuit is that like all noble journeys (think Odysseus, think Jason, think Captain Ahab) sometimes the pilgrim brooks no detours, and more’s the pity. There is something rather…unattractive about single-mindedness in pursuit of a goal, after all. Life is a journey; so, too, should your garlic-growing be. Don’t reserve them ALL for a final harvest. Green garlic is a gorgeous, fleeting thing: before forming a bulb, the stem and end can be eaten like a gigantic scallion, only better. It’s not bitter, it slices easily, and you can use most of the neck right up to the leaves. Scapes of course are the fun pre-harvest benefit of growing hard-neck garlic: these topset stalks are a great addition to any item in a wok or a saute pan, and I often use the smaller ones coined into the bottom of a bowl of salad, topping a soup, or boiled in with some of the last potatoes for a final mash. Terribly versatile, said scapes. It’s a gardener’s reparation for the fact that hardneck garlic does not store well.
But don’t get all snooty and think you can’t plant the smaller cloves of garlic. I often plant the end of a bed with them in very early spring. Using them green or even all bulbed up: this is the bed I raid when making my own version of green goddess or ranch/buttermilk dressing. Who cares how big they are when it’s their flavor you are after.
All I am saying is that garlic should be a fun crop, not an anxiety-prone one. Granted, I sometimes grow close to The Perfect Bulb but I also grow a whole bunch of little ones. I also have these greenhouses, which certainly help on my quest. But honestly, I like to see myself more as a wandering pilgrim than one suffering from monomania: all garlic is good.