Community Garden: An Eight-Month Tale of Garlic
You see that garlic? I grew that garlic! Me and eight months of nature magic, that is.
When I scored a plot on my community garden, I was excited for the salad greens, the squash, all the fresh goodies. But one of my major goals was to learn to grow some of the staples and storage goods that I pull off the shelf before anything else when it’s time to make a meal. Garlic is, perhaps, the poster child of that concept: I mince up at least a clove or two in just about everything.
One of the vendors at the farmers market grows copious amounts of garlic, selling the trimmed and cured heads by the pound during the summer and fall, so I picked his brain one day last September about planting garlic myself. Armed with new knowledge and a few heads of garlic, I spent a crisp October morning starting what would become a significant test of patience.
Most garlic is grown by planting a single clove for each head you hope to produce. Planted in the fall, garlic grows slowly throughout the winter. It’s a remarkably hearty plant. When most of the garden plots around mine were dormant or inhabited only by kale, my perky little garlic plants stood tall and leafy.
As the stalks thickened and the leaves multiplied, I was sure an excellent crop of garlic was on the way. But then, leaves started to brown…
What had I done?? Did I not give them enough water? What the hell was going on down there? Unlike tomatoes or peppers, which show quite visibly if their edibles are going to fail, the garlic was (hopefully) snuggling in the dirt several inches below the surface. I didn’t want to risk pulling it up too early just to see if something was going wrong.
Thankfully, the internet was ripe with information. Apparently, dead leaves are a good thing, and a cue to strop watering so the heads can begin to cure. Once the garlic sends up scapes, long swirly tendrils that will ultimately flower and drain the garlic’s nutrients if not trimmed, it’s almost harvest time!
Despite the immense curiosity I’d developed over the last few months, I was nervous about digging up the first one. I feared tiny, stunted heads, or worse, shriveled versions of the cloves I’d planted several months earlier. But as usual, plants do what they do very well, and I was not disappointed.
They worked! But still, the process was not quite done. At this stage, the garlic is mature: I easily could have peeled apart a head and used the cloves as I would any other garlic. But to keep it around for months at a time, the garlic needed to dry in a cool, dry, and dark place.
A shelf in the laundry room suddenly became a makeshift home for 35 heads of garlic and their two-foot long stalks for about a month (the first two weeks of which my apartment reeked of garlic). I learned that garlic is best taken into the dark almost as soon as it’s pulled from the ground, with the roots and stalks still in place. So I left it alone, watched the leaves shrink and crisp until four weeks had passed.
Kinda icky, right? Dripping as little dirt and leaf litter as possible, I gently hauled everything out to the balcony for a bit of cleaning. It turns out I don’t actually use my balcony for much leisure – it seems to be mostly a staging ground for food photos, gardening, and produce prep. I hope the people below me don’t mind the little bits of soil that so frequently fall through the wood planks…
Once the roots were removed and the dirt was brushed gently from the delicate wrapper garlic so conveniently provides for itself, most garlic is then trimmed from its stalks and sold head by head. But to get the most bang for my buck with my first garlic harvest, I wanted to try something a little more crafty.
My garlic braid went pretty well, for a time, but was a little hodge-podgy by the end. Okay okay, the last few cloves are just tied to the top. there’s only so many brittle, breaking stalks one can swing into a braid at once.
And here we are! Eight months of planting, watering, waiting, curing, drying, cleaning, and braiding later, I have a tidy little garlic braid hanging in my pantry. It’s gonna be a tasty few months!