To my knowledge, I do not have a problem with vampires or werewolves, and yet, garlic is one of my absolute favorite plants to grow in the vegetable garden. Early European folklore had believers wearing garlic around their necks, hanging it in windows, and rubbing it on keyholes and chimneys to ward off evil. I don’t go that far, but I consider it an essential culinary ingredient in our home. The relative ease of planting, growing, and harvesting garlic lands it on the “must grow” list for our garden each year.
Documentation of the cultivation of garlic has existed in China and Egypt for thousands of years. Well-preserved garlic was even found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, dating to 1325 BC! I have not cultivated garlic for thousands of years in my garden; I started growing this ancient plant back in 2012. My first experience growing garlic was with the variety ‘Purple Glazer’, a type that I continued to grow for three years. It’s beautiful purple blushed bulbs were enchanting and delicious. In 2015, I decided to try growing a few different cultivars and planted ‘Music’, ‘German Extra Hardy’, and ‘Riesig’, all equally appetizing. These cultivars are hardneck varieties, which tend to grow better in colder climates than the softneck varieties.
In 2016, I grew my first garlic crop from seed saved from the previous season’s harvest. It was my first experience with seed saving, and it was so satisfying that I have continued the practice ever since. I typically plant around 40-50 cloves in my garden, yielding just enough garlic bulbs to last us throughout the winter months. It fascinates me that planting a single clove will produce an entire bulb in several months time. I’m no longer sure what varieties I am growing, a mix of all three original types, no doubt. As I save seed each year, my garlic is becoming acclimated specifically to my garden environment, almost becoming a unique variety. How amazing that is!
Here in the Northeast, I plant my garlic in the fall. It is my final gardening act before putting my beds to rest for the winter. As I plant the cloves in late October to early November and cover them generously with straw, I whisper, “Goodnight garlic, I will see you in the spring.” As they rest in the ground during the winter months, I too rest from a busy gardening season, dreaming of what’s to come in the garden the following spring. A few months later, we are both sufficiently rested. In the early spring sunshine, I notice that the garlic is one of the first plants to pop out of the ground, bright green and ready to reach for the sky—a harbinger of spring and the gardening possibilities to come.
I am also captivated with hardneck garlic because the bulbs are not the only delectable treat that the plant offers. Around mid-June, the plants start to send up their scapes, which are the plant’s flowering part. Trimming off the scape before it flowers will allow the plant to put it’s energy into bulb production. The scapes themselves are a delicious culinary treat, exquisite in stir fry and pesto dishes. Just one more reason to love the garlic growing experience!
As the lower leaves of my garlic plants start to brown, I know that harvest time is near. Harvesting typically occurs in July in my garden, and I find few things as satisfying as this process. Much like growing potatoes, harvesting garlic is a treasure-hunt-like experience. I anxiously await to see what size bulbs I’ve grown as I gently coax them out of the ground. “EUREKA! Look at the size of this one; it has six plump cloves!” I shout in triumph as I hoist the bulb into the air. Like a pirate stashing his loot, I set about the task of curing my treasures. I lay them out to dry for a few weeks, checking on them periodically, anxious to return, and ready them for storage. When that time comes, they are cleaned and trimmed and stored in the pantry for use in our culinary creations. I save the biggest and best cloves to plant in the fall for next season’s harvest.
This year, I also decided to try my hand at growing garlic’s close relative, the shallot. I honestly don’t think I had ever tasted shallots before deciding to try growing them in my garden. All I knew was that their flavor resembled a cross between garlic and onions, which was good enough for me. After all, one of the best parts of having a garden is that you can experiment with growing new plants. I went with the variety ‘Dutch Red’ and wasn’t disappointed. I planted the shallots and garlic in the fall simultaneously, and they delighted me by also popping up in early spring. The flavor of these shallots is so delicious that I think they have earned the right to be on the “must grow” list right alongside my garlic. I will try to have the willpower to save enough to plant in the fall instead of eating them all in favorite recipes. It will be a difficult task.
I will continue to grow garlic and shallots for the joy they bring in the garden and on our plates. For me, their planting, growing, and harvesting cycle marks the rhythm of the growing season. Being the first plants to emerge in the vegetable garden in the spring, they herald that planting time is near, harvesting the scapes signals to me that I need to switch gears as the needs of the garden and it’s bounty is about to increase, when collecting the bulbs I know that it’s time to start succession sowing fall crops in the empty beds, and when planting the cloves in the fall, I’m reminded that it’s time to rest and reflect on the past gardening season. I love the rhythm that growing garlic and shallots bring to my garden and my life. Plus, it couldn’t hurt to have some garlic on hand just in case I need to ward off any mythic creatures lurking around.