Falling into garlic growing

Like good spaghetti sauce, it takes time

The distinctive aroma of garlic signified the toast my mother made with Parmesan cheese to go with spaghetti. It meant the lasagna and other Italian dishes our neighbor had in the works on any given afternoon. I don’t know how old I was before I realized garlic came from cloves that grew in bulbs under the ground, but I’ve learned a bit since then.

Growing garlic has not borne fruit, er, bulb, for me in the past. Planting it in spring didn’t work. Neither did late summer. Then I read garlic was really better planted in the fall. Fall planting gives the bulbs a head start for the next growing season, and the bulbs are bigger and more flavorful, said the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

I decided I ought to try that sometime. Then I forgot about it until last fall, when the chef in our household handed me a couple of garlic cloves that evidently got bored in the cupboard and decided to sprout: “Here, you want to try planting these?”

Of course I did. That’s how I ended up with a bonanza of red potatoes a few autumns ago; the chef gave me a couple of gnarly red potatoes that were past their chef-worthiness. “What the heck?” I figured. I had some space in one of my raised beds and nothing to lose, so I halved and planted them without much thought to site preparation or anything like that. I did add a marker to remember what the heck I’d planted there.

Two or three months later, adding an “I wonder” to the “what the heck,” I carefully dug into the soil and was delighted when my hand found a perfect round potato. Then another. Then a few more. I had a red potato bonanza, the likes of which I’ve yet to repeat even with intention and preparation.

So I planted the garlic cloves in early November, keeping my expectations low. Garlic from the grocery store is generally not recommended for planting, but look what happened with a grocery-store potato. Again, I didn’t worry too much about site prep. Since spring planting season was months away, I did take extra care to mark the site so I wouldn’t inadvertently plant something else there and start a turf war once everything started growing and competing for space and nutrients. Then I tucked them in under a blanket of dead leaves.

When that protective blanket was accidentally blown away in a routine yard cleanup, I wondered if all would be lost, but in late March, there they were: two clumps of green shoots.

They’d decided to come up after all. Harvest time should roll around in late July or August, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, so as you read this I will either be proudly drying my home-grown garlic bulbs or formulating a plan to try again this fall.

Standard operating procedure, of course, is to buy what’s called seed garlic from farm markets or garden retailers. Each clove produces a new bulb. About a month before the first frost is considered the best time for planting garlic in the fall for harvest the following summer, although Mother Earth News suggests waiting until after the first frost when the soil is cool.

Cloves should be planted 1 to 2 inches deep, pointy end up, spaced 6 to 8 inches apart. Make sure your site gets plenty of sun – or that it will, come spring. Mark it, mulch it and hope for the best.

After you do your victory dance when the green shoots come up in the spring, give them a bit of fertilizer. I use an organic, granular variety that isn’t too much of a rude awakening after the long winter. Then it’s another waiting game. The next thing you’ll see the plants do is send up a long stalk called a scape, which can be harvested and cooked much as you would chives or green onions.

After the leaves turn yellow and begin to die back, it’s time to harvest. Gently remove the bulbs from the ground, brush off the soil and let them air dry out of the sun for a week or two. Then they’re ready to store and use to create more olfactory memories.

I can smell the lasagna already.

First appeared in August 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine

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