Fall is bulb planting time but don’t limit yourself to the pretty little things of spring like daffodils, tulips and crocuses. ‘Tis the season to plant garlic as well for harvest next summer.
There may be some people in the world who don’t care for the pungent flavor of this essential seasoning. I’ll go with the old Roman proverb: Trust no one who doesn’t eat garlic.
Practically any cuisine worth mentioning relies on this root crop for bold flavor or more subtle effects. It’s true that raw garlic can be sharp and overwhelming but cooked longer with roasts, stews or sauces it acquired a mellow, almost nutty taste that any trustworthy person would find purely delicious.
Plant some garlic now and you’ll reap homegrown goodness come next summer. You’ll also have a ready supply of something you can rarely find except perhaps in farmer’s markets: garlic scapes, the strange, curly green sprouts that form at the top of the plants early in the season. These are mild-flavored gourmet treats that can be chopped into salads, sautéed or turned into pesto.
The garlic year runs like this: plant cloves October through mid-November, cull the green scapes late May through June and dig nice, plump garlic bulbs beginning in July. Garlic is easy to grow and has the sterling attribute of being completely unpalatable to critters. Even the deer, which will chow down on virtually anything else, leave garlic alone – and that’s exactly why my friends Midge and Jack began growing it.
With an abundance of garlic and no lack of a flair for the unusual, they launched an event called the Garlic Fest. When you have grown 80-odd pounds of garlic it’s natural to ponder what might be done with it and not very difficult at all to find among your slightly out-there friends those who will play along with your culinary games.
We probably all reeked for a week but oh, the palate-pleasing adventure! Think chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. Garlic-infused vinegar. Roasted garlic, mushy and mellow, spread on crusty bread. Goat cheese blended with garlic and herbs. Garlicky salsa. The garlic ice cream was, as they say, an acquired taste. But hey – a Garlic Fest is not for wimps.
There are more types of garlic than you might imagine, some 600 varieties worldwide. They are divided into the “softneck” types commonly found in supermarkets and the “hardneck” kinds that produce those intriguing scapes. (The “neck” is the papery stub above the bulb itself.) The softneck kinds are milder and their stems can be braided for nice kitchen gifts. The hardnecks don’t keep as long but are known for subtle variations in flavor depending on where they are grown, rather like wine grapes.
Jack, my garlic guru, says that the favor differences are most pronounced when garlic is eaten raw. If you’re growing garlic yourself, you might as well experiment with the hardneck rocamboles, porcelains and purple stripes, and the softneck silverskin and artichoke varieties. (“Elephant garlic” isn’t a garlic at all but a leek, by the way).
Garlic wants full sun and a loose, well-drained and reasonably fertile soil. Jack rototills twice a year and mixes in lots of organic “stuff,” primarily the ever-available manure to lighten the clay soils he gardens.
Planting can continue as long as the ground is unfrozen so there’s plenty of time to order from such organic sources as these: Filaree Garlic Farm, 182 Conconully Highway, Okanogan, WA 98840, 509-422-6940; Gourmet Garlic Gardens, 12300 FM 1176, Bangs, TX 76823, 325-348-3049; or Green Mountain Garlic, 780 Kneeland Flats Road, Waterbury, VT 05676, 802-882-8263.
Plant individual cloves (root end down) two to three inches deep, four to six inches apart in rows spaced about 18 inches apart. Mulching between rows keeps the weeds down. You’ll want to water if the weather is too dry but the cloves will rot if kept too wet. (“It erodes the skins right off the bulbs,” says Jack.)
Growth will begin in earnest in the spring and somewhere around early June when the scapes curl it’s time to cut them off. This directs the plant’s energy to the bulb and without a scape cull, the garlic below ground won’t grow.
Harvesting the bulbs in July can be a little confusing for first-timers. Jack’s method is to wait until leaves start to brown but the bottom two leaves are still green. Carefully dig up the bulbs with a garden fork (they bruise easily), leave any clinging soil alone for now and tie bundles of 10 to 15 in a knot, hanging them in a dark place like a garage.
After two or three weeks of curing you can cut the stems to a stub one to four inches long, clip off the roots and rub off the outer layer along with any clinging dirt. Now you’re in business. You can store your harvest in a cool (50-55 degree) place for the winter. Or you can have a Garlic Fest and let the fun begin.