Garlic – The Must-Grow Vegetable For Every Garden
Well, not THE most important, but certainly one of the top five, including onions, carrots, potatoes, and beans. When you are cooking your meals from scratch every day, several times a day, as we do, just about every meal begins with a clove or two of garlic. I will likely cover the other vegetables as the summer goes along, but I wanted to talk about garlic this week, because we just finished picking the garlic seed scapes, and are now getting ready to pull the actual garlic bulbs.
Garlic is an allium, a member of the onion family, one of three that we grow, leeks being the other one. Leeks are a hugely important crop for us, as one of our favorite winter soups is a leek and potato variety. More about that this fall. We are also trying shallots this year for the first time. Not sure about its importance yet; it was something my partner Danielle wanted to try.
Getting back to garlic. We usually get our seed stock, which is no more than individual cloves, at the Common Ground Country Fair in September, at the farmers’ market. We have tried various breeds of garlic, but none of them stand out as a favorite, taste-wise. Some have great names, though. I like Music, German Porcelain, and Chesnok Red. I just like the sound of those. But for taste, we keep trying new to us varieties, hoping one will eventually stand out. We always try to purchase more than we need, but every year we end up wishing we’d planted more. We want eventually to get to the point where we can save our own seed stock. As with the rest of the garden, one of our goals is to save our own seed, a topic I will cover this fall.
We plant the cloves in the garden, being sure that we did not have any alliums, onion family members, in that bed the previous four years, insuring good crop rotation. We prepare the soil with composted manures, and after planting about eight inches apart in both directions we mulch with straw. That is pretty much it. If you free range your chickens like we did last fall, they might try and dig the cloves back up, like ours did. So, be careful with that.
The following April you will see the garlic leaves begin to peek out of the snow or mulch, and that is always a cause for celebration. Try to keep the garlic patch as weed free as you can, which should not be too much of a problem if you mulched.
The next milestone in the life of the garlic plant is the seed scape, which you see in the picture at the top of this blog post. They come along right around mid-June, and we just cut the last of ours last week, and this is another cause for celebration. We love to celebrate things around here. We also love eating food in season, and garlic scapes are just that. They don’t last long. You will want to cut them off the plant, so that the energy can go into growing the bulb.
When to harvest the bulbs is quite tricky, they say. The dying back of the leaves is only an approximate indicator. I usually just reach through the soil and feel for the wrappers, to detect optimum harvest time. Even pull one or two bulbs out and assess. You want good wrappers, but large bulbs. You don’t want to harvest too early. As I write this it should be another week or so for us here in Maine. Try to harvest during a bit of a dry spell and not in full sun. We use a narrow trowel to dig them out. I prefer this better than a fork, as I bruise fewer this way. You have to be careful as garlic bruises easily.
After your garlic is out of the ground you will want to get them into the shade as soon as possible, like, right away. You don’t want them to get sunburned. They can change flavor if they do. We like to take the garlic into the carport, which offers plenty of shade and freely moving air. Here it will stay for a couple of weeks. Then we cut the leaves off, and all but about a quarter inch of roots. We usually grow four varieties every year, and I built a wooden box with four compartments that we label with the names of the varieties. This goes into a cool shady room where we also store beans and onions.
About 80% of grocery store garlic comes from China, and they are putting the California growers out of business, I read, and YOU can stop it. Less than ten years ago All of our garlic was grown in this country. Among other things, Chinese garlic goes through a methyl bromide fumigation process, and some of the garlic producers there use raw sewage to fertilize, and we’ve seen photos of Chinese garlic handlers in Hazmat type suits.
We grow all the garlic we can use in a space 30 inches by about 15 feet. I entreat you, I implore you, I beg you, to grow your own garlic.