Last fall I did something every gardener should try: grow garlic. It takes nearly all year, but not that much effort. Plant your garlic now, six to eight weeks before the ground freezes, let it hibernate under the snow all winter long, water the bulbs in the summer ’til it’s time to pull them out, then hang them to cure for two weeks. There’s some luck and chance involved, but that’s what makes gardening an exciting endeavor.
The first time I grew my own garlic, my head swelled with the possibility of putting local pizzerias out of business with my own signature garlic knots, selling the rest in such large quantities that I could retire a very rich and rather odorous man. You see, for every clove of garlic, you can grow up to seven heads more (each containing as many cloves). The math is encouraging…
But things went a little awry. Thanks to a series of beautifully warm November days with highs in the 70s, my garlic was fooled into thinking spring had arrived. Despite a heap of protective mulch placed on top, garlic scapes busted through, not realizing a long winter was mere minutes away. I’ve never been so disappointed to see healthy vegetable growth. When the ice cleared in the spring, there were only three left from the original 10 I had planted, standing proud but conspicuous in otherwise empty pots.
I kept watering them well into the summer, finally pulling them in late July. I stopped watering the garlic a week before harvesting, letting the scapes go brown. Then I gently raised them with a trowel. I can’t tell you how proud I was of my three, weird, tiny heads of garlic.
I cured the precious heads in dry heat and shade under my grill and wound up using most of it in a hodgepodge, hurricane-induced culinary experiment involving sautéed onions, peppers and chicken sausage. It was delicious. Pungent. Spicy. And totally worth the effort.
Here’s what to do:
• Get good planting stock: Buy the kind of garlic that reproduces. Supermarket varieties are probably not the ones you want. You can find out where to get some good, local planting stock on the Garlic Seed Foundation, or take your chances with farmer’s market garlic.
• Planting in the ground is the conventional way, but pots will work, too. If you’re a city dweller who wants to plant in the ground, have your soil tested first.
• Plant later in the season, and plant more of it than you want to eat; you might lose some to idiocy (ahem). In New York City, that’s less like October and more like late November. You don’t want the garlic to grow too much before the winter, just enough to get some roots going.
• Drop one clove into holes in the dirt 3-4 inches deep, pick the biggest, non-bruised cloves of the bunch. Give them some room—around 5 inches apart.
• Mulching can help protect them from super cold temperatures.
• Continue to water into the colder months. The idea is that you want the roots to continue to grow before the frost hits, but… you don’t want them to sprout too early.
• Cut the scapes (the big green part above the ground) a few weeks before harvest in the summer. Cook with them like you’d cook with scallions. Impress your friends and throw them on a pizza.
• Gently raise the garlic with your hands or a trowel. Dust off the dirt and cure ’em by hanging them out of the sun in a breezy spot for about two weeks when it’s warm.
• Celebrate! You just grew garlic, and damn it tastes good.
Scott Moe blogs about gardening on his rooftop at Panthy’s Garden.
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