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Adventures in growing garlic


Every year I have grand plans for my garden. I buy seeds, research planting times, I even think about what I will do with the bounty I imagine I will soon be harvesting. Then summer goes into high gear and the box of seeds sit on my kitchen table taunting me, leaving me to think about next year.

This summer I did manage to grow one successful crop. I attribute its success to the fact it was planted in the fall and merely harvested in the summer. When my dad told me he had purchased a bunch of garlic seed from a farm in New Hampshire I thought, sure why not? After all every recipe in my household starts with at least three cloves of garlic.

I have a good-sized garden out in an old horse paddock behind my folks’ house. Ample space and constant sunshine created the perfect conditions for what might be the most rewarding thing I have ever grown. As I sat in my garden last October, breaking up heads of garlic, separating individual cloves, I thought to myself, there is no way this is going to work. But it was a good excuse to get outside and spend some time with my hands in the dirt.

I planted my rows in raised beds and followed the simple rule of thumb that garlic cloves should be planted with the pointed side up, two inches deep, four inches apart with six inches of space between rows. Pretty soon I had planted 120 cloves of garlic between two raised beds. I scratched a small amount of organic fertilizer in the soil and headed out to Madaket to collect a few trash barrels of old eel grass to cover the beds with.

Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and I completely forgot about my garden. I didn’t water it or really do much of anything. Which is why I was amazed to see little shoots coming out of the ground in early spring. By the second week of June, I was harvesting garlic scapes.  

Scapes are the part of the plant that ultimately flowers. The reason you cut these parts off the plant is to direct more energy to the bulb, which results in larger heads of garlic. More importantly, this part of the plant is delicious. The tender stalks have a sweet, subtle garlic flavor and can be used a lot of ways in the kitchen.

I grilled them, diced them and sautéed them with butter and cooked them with scrambled eggs and used them in bright summer pastas. I even blended them in a food processor with some cilantro, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper and used it as a condiment on steak and fish. I would assume pickling them would also be a good use. I had so many garlic scapes I ended up giving away a bunch to friends and family.

I was ready to harvest my crop by the first week of July. I grabbed the base of the stalk and gently pulled my first head of garlic from the ground. I was amazed at the size of each head, mainly because I had done almost nothing. I just let nature take its course. Soon I emerged from my garden, sweaty and covered in dirt, with 120 heads of garlic in a wheelbarrow.

We sat on my dad’s back porch and tied the garlic into bundles. I packed it into the back of my car and drove home, unloading the harvest onto my kitchen table. Much to my wife’s chagrin it stayed there for about two weeks while it cured. She asked me what we were going to do with 120 heads of garlic, which was a very reasonable question.

In the end we gave away about half to friends and family. It felt right to share. I asked a couple chef friends what I should do. Confit it, one said. Pickle it, said another. Roast it whole or make black garlic. All good suggestions. I am certain I will end up using it all. Whether in the kitchen or replanting it this fall. One thing is for sure, I will definitely be growing garlic again.