Thursday, July 15, 2010

Garlic: A Love Story

I have fallen in love with an Allium. That's right, an Allium. Allium is a genus of plant that is basically the onion family--onions, shallots, leeks, chives, and garlic. When I planted our garlic bulbs on September 5, I had no clue what to do with them. So I did nothing. I didn't mulch over them in the winter like I was supposed to. I think I did throw some compost around them in the spring, which apparently was a good move but it only happened because I had some extra from another bed. In any case, I knew nothing about garlic. I planted two different kinds: Chesnok Red (a hardneck) and Early Italian Purple Grape (a softneck). I thought the garlic would be ready for harvest in the early spring, but I was (shockingly) wrong on that guess. Then I thought it might be ready in June. I did some poking around in books and online and mine just didn't seem ready. I dug down to see the bulbs and they were small and green onion-like. So I left them alone. They looked scraggly, dead, and completely fed up with my abuse.

On July 5th I was lying in bed and thinking about my garlic. (Of course I was, doesn't everyone?) I decided the next day was the day. In the morning when I took the dogs out, I plucked out one of the softnecks and much to my surprise it looked like garlic. I don't know when I will cease to be amazed by plants growing and doing what they've evolved to do, but clearly it's not yet. I pulled the next one out by the leaves, but the stalk broke away from the bulb, which I could see firmly lodged in the dirt below. I decided I'd wait until that evening and harvest them. I announced my plan to the Boyfriend and he was equally excited for the garlic harvest.

We went out to the garden in the evening for the big event. Much to my surprise, the lone bulb that had broken away from the stalk was gone. I hope one of the neighbor cats ate it and hated it and has learned its lesson. In any case, with the exception of that one loss, we harvested all the other bulbs by digging underneath them and prying them out--five softnecks and eight hardnecks.

As long as I live, I will never forget that evening in our garden. One by one we lifted those pungent bulbs out of the ground and each time I was amazed that another legitimate garlic bulb emerged from our garden. The air smelled so good that the Boyfriend kept taking deep breaths and letting out the satisfied sigh that usually accompanies dinner preparation activities at our household. As the bulbs started stacking up on the grass, I realized we probably had a 6- to 9-month supply of garlic here. We were putting away food that would become a part of so many of our meals over the coming months.

I had my Bible outside with me. Yes, The Vegetable Gardener's Bible. That's actually what it's called. I love this book for two reasons: it has answers to everything garden-related--including individual write-ups about every vegetable and herb--and because author Edward C. Smith appears on the glossy cover and reminds me of Ducky from NCIS every time I see him. In any case, the book is wonderful. It answers questions I didn't even know I had. When my tomato plants were purple this spring I thought it was odd but didn't give it any more thought. Then one night I was mindlessly flipping through the Bible and saw that purple tomatoes need phosphorus. I'm happy to report I no longer have purple tomatoes.

So anyway, back to the garlic. I had my Bible outside with me to show me how to take care of these bulbs now that I had unearthed them. Following directions carefully (yay me!), I peeled back the first two leaves that created the outer layers of the garlic bulb. As the second layer came off, I think the angels sang. What appeared was a sparkling white and absolutely gorgeous garlic bulb. I repeated this process 14 more times. The angels sang each time.

In the meantime, the Boyfriend seemed less concerned with the angels and more excited to build something. He built our garlic a safehouse. Since some thieving creature had already walked away with one of our precious bulbs, we weren't going to take any chances. These bright white beauties had to stay outside to dry out for the next 2 to 3 weeks, so the Boyfriend built a little garlic cage to keep them safe. It is no exaggeration to say we have the most-loved garlic on the planet at this point.

Will harvesting garlic always be this exciting? Probably not. But I think it will always make me happy, and I know I will never forget our first garlic harvest. Both of us working away in the garden, the air saturated with that delicious garlic aroma, and feeling completely connected to this place. As it turns out, garlic becomes uniquely adapted to its microclimate over time. After you buy your first garlic bulbs at the nursery, each year you should save some of your own harvest to plant for the next season. Your garlic will gradually become particularly suited to its place. I think garlic might just be my vegetable soul mate.

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