Potatoes and garlic, together or separately, are pillars of the kitchen. Of the major carbohydrate crops of the world — wheat, rice, corn and potato — the homely spud is the easiest for a home gardener to grow in a meaningful amount. And for adding flavor to daily fare, earthy and pungent garlic is almost as essential as salt. “Why should I grow either, when they’re cheap to buy and easy to store? What would a fresh harvest add?” you might ask. Growing your own allows you to try out unusual colors or varieties, such as blue or fingerling potatoes, that are seldom commercially available, and to choose organic seed garlic and potatoes if you wish. Their flavors may not be as fleeting as that of just-picked corn, but after you’ve tasted just-dug potatoes or tender fresh garlic heads from the summer harvest, you’ll look forward to them each year.
Seed potatoes are those specifically for planting. You can find them at many garden centers and mail-order companies, or save them from year to year. They can be whole, or cut into pieces that each include at least one eye.
Put them in the ground when grass starts to grow, no earlier than two weeks before your last anticipated frost date, spaced 12 inches apart and 3 inches deep. Chitting potatoes, or pre-sprouting them on a tray in a warm, bright place, will give them a head start.
When your plants reach about 6 inches tall, hill up potatoes with soil or mulch deeply with straw to protect them from sunlight and keep them from turning green and bitter. Though mulch may attract voles, which nibble the tubers, it does help keep the soil moist — a good defense against another important pest, the Colorado potato beetle. Reduce the beetle population by rotating your potato crop; laying spun-bonded polyester row covers over your potatoes after planting; and picking off any eggs, larvae and winged adults.
As soon as you see beautiful pink, lavender or white flowers on the plants, work your fingers into the earth around them to grabble out a few exquisite “baby news.” Then harvest as needed, keeping the bulk of your potatoes in the ground even after the foliage dies down. Light, fluffy soil, rich in organic matter, makes potatoes easy to dig with your hands. Be sure to keep them well-mulched and covered to prevent sun rot and, later, damage from light frosts. Dig remaining potatoes when hard frost is forecast and store them in the cellar, or whatever dark, humid, cool-but-frost-free spot you can find.
Ask local gardeners which potato varieties do well for them. Our favorite for an early new-potato harvest is a round, red-skinned, yellow-fleshed one called ‘Rose Gold’ from Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater, Maine. For the firmer baking type, we love the brown-skinned, yellow-fleshed ‘Charlotte’ from Potato Garden in Austin, Colorado. The widely available ‘Kennebec’ is a good all-purpose potato.
Few foods are as versatile as potatoes. Boil, mash, bake, fry — and then do it all again with variations. Mash them with feta cheese, spinach, or — of course — garlic. Bake potatoes, scoop out their soft flesh, then mix with cheddar, horseradish, bacon or whatever tastes good, and return the filling to the skins. Scallop potatoes and let them bubble in cream until they thicken and absorb all that goodness. Refrigerate a refreshing vichyssoise — a simple potato soup — for summer days, or heat a hefty soup with kielbasa and kale for cold, dark evenings (see the Hearty Sausage and Potato Soup Recipe). Serve a light, lemony potato salad with tarragon and peas in summer, or a hearty one with boiled eggs, mustard and mayo in fall. Fry potatoes with duck fat any time you have both. In any potato recipe, I don’t remove the vitamin-rich skins unless I’m using a food mill or ricer, where they would clog the holes.
Sow garlic by poking individual cloves into the ground 4 inches apart and 2 inches deep, with the pointy end up. This is best done in fall, after the soil temperature drops to 50 degrees Fahrenheit at 4 inches down, to avoid premature growth. (Spring-planted garlic bears later and yields smaller heads, but often stores longer into winter.) From each clove sown, you get a whole head the following year. We use a seaweed mulch to protect and enrich garlic through winter, but you can also use straw or chopped-up autumn leaves.
Two types of garlic are available — softnecks, which have loose tops you can braid, and hardnecks, with long, stiff center stalks. Softnecks keep the longest, but hardnecks are more cold-hardy and have larger cloves that are easier to peel. Softnecks can be left to mature like onions and harvested when the tops die down. Hardnecks are best harvested when the foliage has begun to brown but six or so green leaves remain.
If you grow hardneck types, pick the garlic scapes (green flower stems) they produce in midsummer. These scapes — some of which grow in wonderful loopy circles, as on the hardneck type called Rocambole — become deliciously chewy and caramelized when grilled, roasted or sautéed in olive oil.
Local farms tend to provide seed garlic best suited to your area. We buy unnamed heirlooms from an Italian neighbor who has grown them for years and adapted them to Maine. Filaree Garlic Farm in Okanogan, Washington, is a good mail-order source. Ron Engeland’s Growing Great Garlic is the garlic bible.
Cooking with Garlic
Garlic is a palatable powerhouse that can sometimes overwhelm food, but cooking takes the edge off its harshness. Roasting garlic softens it into a sweet, aromatic paste. Scattering a handful of garlic cloves around a chicken as it roasts is a simple act that leads to gravy nirvana. Garlic softens the bite of strong-flavored greens, such as dandelion and turnip tops. It’s the raison d’être of hummus, aïoli and pesto. Garlic elevates the humble baked bean.
Garlic also yields a few byproducts that cooks treasure. In spring, when the new shoots emerge, you can harvest whole plants as scallion-like “green garlic.” We sow the smallest of our saved cloves for that purpose, using the biggest ones as seed garlic to get big heads the next harvest season.
Want to prepare some simple potato and garlic recipes? Try these delicious recipes:
Barbara Damrosch farms and writes with her husband, Eliot Coleman, at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, where sturdy bowls of potato soup frequently chase the chill on cool, fall evenings. She is the author of The Garden Primer and, with Coleman, The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.