One September afternoon about 4 years ago, we were in the grocery store searching for garlic. We had no interest in powdered garlic, dried garlic or minced garlic in oil. Nor did we want imported garlic or garlic cloves already peeled. What we wanted was a bulb of garlic, organic and locally grown. We returned home with none.
The next weekend, we roamed though the gardeners’ market in town. Several farmers had garlic for sale. We purchased a bulb for a dollar, a fair price, we thought. But the cloves were the size of peas.
Since we were in the process of establishing a garden on our northern Utah homestead, we wondered if we could grow the allium ourselves. Being new to gardening, we doubted it. If the established farmers at the gardeners’ market failed to grow ample bulbs, perhaps the soil or climate forbade it. Still, we decided to try.
We consulted with an organic seed and bulb catalogue about which types to plant. Since we live in a Zone 4 climate, we chose hardneck varieties with a penchant for cold. These included 'German Extra Hardy' and 'Russian Red'. We also chose 'Italian Music' for its beauty and name.
The catalogue company mailed us the bulbs in mid-October and we planted them soon after that. (In warmer climates, garlic should be planted later in autumn or even in winter.) All three varieties grew well. Now, four seasons later we continue to grow them. Here’s what we do.
We decide on a sunny patch in the garden, and preferably one where we haven’t grown onions, leeks or other alliums for two or 3 years. (We have grown garlic in the same bed two years in a row without any issues, but some farmers recommend against it.)
In late October, we prepare the bed by loosening the soil with a broad fork and removing weeds. Then we work a layer of compost into the soil.
Next, we divide the bulbs into cloves. We plant the cloves, blunt (root) end down, about two to three inches deep and half a foot apart. We water the bed, and then cover it with a thick mulch of straw and leaves. This keeps it warm for the winter. In the meantime, we keep ourselves warm too. The garlic is on its own until spring.
Toward the end of March, we remove the mulch by hand so as not to disturb the sprouts. We keep the mulch off for about a month until the soil has warmed. Then we replace it everywhere on the bed except on the sprouts. This practice encourages earthworms and discourages weeds.
When the snow has melted and the irrigation water becomes available in early May, we water the bed once a week. Later in the season, we water it twice a week. Even in our dry climate, the water needs of garlic are low.
In June, long curly stalks known as scapes appear on hardneck garlic. Most farmers recommend removing the scapes so that the plants put more energy into producing larger bulbs. This has been our experience. Using kitchen shears, we cut off most of the scape.
Sautéed, roasted or pickled, scapes make a delightful treat. They’re also a promise of the bulbs to come.
When the leaves on the stalks droop and turn yellowish-brown, we stop watering. A week later, we harvest. Where we live, this happens in late July. Using a shovel, we dig out the bulbs carefully so as not to damage them. Then we brush off the soil but otherwise leave the roots and stalk intact.
At this point in the process, we feel grateful for our bounty. But we also ask ourselves why we planted so much. Did we doubt it all would grow? Did we really plan to eat a hundred bulbs of garlic? Of course, the real reason we ask this question is that harvesting garlic for four or five hours in 90 degrees makes us wonder if we’re just a tad odd.
We try to eat any damaged bulbs right away. The remainder we cure. Garlic cures best in a dry, well-ventilated place that’s dim or dark. When the wrapper around the bulb and cloves becomes thoroughly dry, the garlic is cured. This process can take anywhere from three to six weeks depending on such factors as variety, size, degree of dryness at time of harvest, and humidity level.
We live in a dry climate, which works well for curing garlic. Here’s how we do it. In a seldom-used room, we open the window, close the shades and cover the floor with a large cotton quilt. Then we lay the garlic in rows on the quilt. Sometimes we have so much garlic that it doesn’t fit so we cross-hatch it on a table or in boxes. Regardless of configuration, we leave enough room between bulbs for the air to circulate. We rotate the garlic about half way through the curing process.
In humid climates, it may be better to cure garlic on screens or by hanging it bulb-down so air circulates more effectively. Some farmers use fans.
Once the garlic is cured, we remove the stalks and trim the roots. Then we place the bulbs in cardboard boxes in a cool pantry away from humidity and light. (In a separate box, we set aside the largest bulbs, which we plant a month or two later.)
Cured and stored in this way, our garlic lasts for 6 to 7 months. After that, we can still use some of the cloves. The remainder we tuck into the hugelkultur bed. For the past several years, this process has gifted us with volunteer garlic.
The day after harvesting and processing the garlic, we have the answer to why we toil in 90 degrees. It has to do with the health of the land, our bodies, our soul. It has to do with the satisfaction of physical activity in the service of sustaining ourselves. It has to do with reducing our exploitation of others. It has to do with the beauty of our garden and the aroma of the earth. It has to do with fostering connection to the cycle of life. It has to do with cost. It has to do with knowing the quality and source of our food.
But it also has to do with the garlic omelet we enjoyed for breakfast, the bruschetta we’re enjoying for lunch, and the myriad garlicky meals we’ll enjoy for much of the year.
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