On garlic

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.

Scapes are pretty, too.

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.

Outside, I have a bed of those small annoyingly sprouted cloves.  I planted these in late February.  The center clump, however, has been in this bed for years.

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.

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15 responses to “On garlic

  1. Beautiful garlic beds! I’ve never grown any, but definitely want to try this year, since we use it in just about everything. I think that the entire garden, at least for me, is the never ending quest for the “perfect” plant. Although I try to tell myself all the time to stop, slow down and (literally) smell the flowers, I think the dream of the perfect garden is what keeps me out there planting, weeding and pruning all summer long!

  2. I so want to learn to grow garlic and onions!

  3. So funny and so true…
    “…when I am stuck peeling the tiniest of cloves for our meals from the tiniest of heads” – this made me laugh and perfectly expresses my recent time spent in the kitchen with my remaining (but beloved) cloves.

    I am in *love* with my Music garlic – it does incredibly well here in my part of Oregon and literally kicked the butts of the other 9 varieties I have grown in the last two years. I also thought it stored quite well, for a hard-necked variety – over 6 months.

    Love your pictures and your blog!

  4. Funny you should write about this- this is the first time I’ve grown garlic and I’m anxiously awaiting it to be ready. I planted Oregon Blue, which is a softneck. I’m going to try Music next year, on Danni’s (AKA Farmgirl_dk) recommendation. The Territorial Seed catalog says that Music’s yields topped everything else, and in trials at Michigan State University outproduced everything else with a whopping 13,500 pounds per acre. They also say that Music can be stored from nine months to a year, which is great for a hardneck. The more I read about it, the more I’m sold on it.

    Anyway, I just hope I do right by the Oregon Blue I have in right now.

  5. I never thought of growing my own garlic until I bought some locally grown garlic from the Farmer’s Market last Fall. They had so much more flavor than those pitiful heads that are imported from China! I will have to remember the variety “Music” when I plant my Fall garden. Also, we’re just getting garlic scapes here. They’re gone by 9:30am, so I will have to get to Market early this week.

  6. I love eating garlic, but I’d have to say that I wait eagerly for the slim green shoots more than the actual heads of garlic forming beneath the earth. That fresh taste is a sign of spring for me. So are the early scapes as the garlic slowly matures…. they bring so much flavor to whatever I put them in – and I’ve been adding them to everything! Plus, garlic is one of the most satisfying things to grow: in my very (very!) limited experience, its been a matter of sticking in the garlic clove and enjoying the green shoots a couple of weeks later.

  7. I’m not completely satisfied with my garlic this year. I’m either not smelling well lately, or I haven’t found pungent enough garlic for me. Sigh.

    We’ll see as we taste the pulled varieties. I think I’m probably going to go ahead and buy other kinds this year, just to focus on those with “robust” garlic flavor.

  8. Really? Garlic is one crop I consider anxiety-free. Even last year, the year of Wet June, the garlic produced. I grant you that the wait is sort of itchy-making. And yeah, having the last few heads get funky in storage before we can eat them up is annoying. But the garlic gap is the real albatross for me. This might be the year I conquer it with the root cellar plus a softneck variety. It could happen!

  9. El, I have been waiting to hear your thoughts on garlic. What you said is wonderful as is garlic. I am currently up to eight varieties of garlic (all hard-neck) and have been addicted to growing garlic for going on five years now. I am up to over three hundred heads this year and plan on doing even more this year. Do you have any thoughts about growing garlic from the bulbils that the scapes produce? I will finally be tasting garlic this year that I started three years ago from the bulbils!

  10. I love this post. You captured it so well — this was our first year growing garlic, and we were so ANXIOUS. And then after we pulled the bulbs we didn’t have anything to compare it to. But I see now we did just fine!

    I let the scapes go too long and now they’re in a vase in the parlor. Oh, well. Next year I’ll know!

  11. I have high hopes for big cloves from some of the garlic you sent us…they are looking very good. My wife hates tinkering with the small cloves, me I don’t mind so much…but if given a choice.

  12. Are you warmer than us? You got artichoke already?? good for you. Do the plants survive the winter outside?

  13. Ours are in the in-between stage between green and mature right now; the cloves are separated by not quite soft, not yet papery membrane. Good eating. Next year I’ll be growing much more, since the garden just got bigger.

  14. Hi Homeyhelper! Do try to grow garlic this fall. It can be fun, especially because it is such a staple. Like most other home-grown goodies you will be shocked by how much better it tastes. And yeah: garden perfection. I surely have dropped that goal ages ago! I am just happy to get “enough.”

    Jules, garlic is easier, if that helps!

    Hi Danni. I know a couple of NW gardeners who swear by Music so it must be a real hit (hah). But what you point out is so true: you need to be kind of merciless and WORK with the garlic that grows well for you. I have a couple that I just adore, taste-wise, but they’re so wimpy, so…off with their heads!

    Paula, I am crossing my fingers for your OR blue too. But indeed; get some Music. Garlic is grown commercially here, surprisingly, considering how cheap and ubiquitous Chinese garlic is. Ick.

    JoAnna, if you lived closer, I would give you all the scapes you want. I don’t bother to freeze them but goodness at this time of year they show up in EVERYTHING I cook…not a bad deal at all, if you’re not garlic-phobic that is. But really, it’s an eye-opener how much better they do taste.

    MC, well, looks like garlic has found a great home with you then! But you are quite right it’s a rewarding crop and of course a little goes a long way (unlike, say, zucchini).

    Stefani, that’s a worthy idea. Although I think many garlics take a while to mature into their flavor, really I do. Have some Purple stripes that I swear taste zestier in November than July. But I was thinking the same thing with some strawberries I got from the local market this week: these things are so tasteless, can the farmers really only be growing them for their ease of growing? Must be.

    Kate, softneck varieties are the key. They’re also the bane of my existence, pulling off their tight skins on a late winter evening. Oh well. You’ll soon be year-round with it. But you’re right: garlic IS a pretty assured crop…still, I do remember the first year I grew a lot of it and I was nothing if not terribly anxious in waiting for it.

    Hi Andy. Indeed, some of the garlic I grow is from bulbils I had about 3 years or so ago (see the link in the post above). They never have gotten terribly large but I *am* selecting for the largest cloves from the largest bulbs to see what happens. Otherwise I go ahead and plant them close or in clumps for garlic greens or just tiny garlic. It’s all good I figure…but yeah, every year I seem to grow more too. It’s kind of a sickness.

    Laurel, how funny: scapes as a lovely accent in a bouquet! Glad to hear you’ve experienced the same thing.

    Mike, I harvested *your* hardneck, porcelain and softnecks this weekend. The Chesnok Red and one other whose name escapes me are still getting more dirt time. But wow, some of the porcelains are gigantico! Makes me so happy. Hope they all turn out for you…

    Oh WF let me assure you the outdoor artichokes are wimpy right now. No, this is a greenhouse-grown one. We’ve had 4 harvests so far. Mostly they fall on a Friday night which is just perfect: a way to end a work week.

    Peter, see, I think having enough home-grown garlic is a quality of life issue. I actually used some of mine last year to make some salsa for the school and I am kind of mad I did…shows I can be a selfish pig, surely, or at least more selfish with some crops than others. Anyway, I think it’s important to have it ALL close at hand…sounds like you’ve got the message too.

  15. You have the cutest wee lass ever. I have the scape-less variety this year and not sure I have enough to last us till next year but I’ll find out. Last year I roasted 4 pounds and froze it. I still have 2 pounds worth left somehow. I have missed having dried garlic though, the flavor is much stronger but the frozen roasted cloves are darn handy to pull out and chop up without having to stop and peel them at the second you need to add them to the pan.

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