On Garlic and Patience

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It was a banner year for garlic, in my garden anyway. Not that planting garlic is ostensibly hard – really the only thing to consider is timing: when the cloves go in and when to harvest. Yet despite that it has taken me three years to get a good crop. The first year was, well, a non-effort. I decided in the spring that I wanted to plant garlic along with my tomatoes, basil and lettuce. Why it never occurred to me to plant garlic earlier in my decade of urban gardening, I don’t know. It seemed… hard for some reason. There’s something comforting about watching plants grow bigger and taller; the ability to see the fruits widen and ripen seems like half the pay-off of a tiny urban plot. And the garlic itself seemed to yield no clues as to how it was grown. Add another item to my embarrassing list of food I had been eating all of my life (I am Italian after all) of which I could not picture how it grew. Even my first garlic scapes – a bag full in my first CSA seven years ago now – did little to shed light on this process. Although, like most of us, I really didn’t give it much thought.

That is until I continued to hone the mix of vegetables in my community garden. I received great advice: grow what you always want more of. Thus the dozen tomato plants and tons of herbs. After paying upwards of two dollars for a head of garlic (a delicious, yet very tiny head), I realized that I should start growing my own. So when I was ordering my seeds in the depths of winter, I tried to look for garlic seeds as well. Yes, well, these don’t exist. At least not in the way that other seeds do. Instead, as a kind friend gently advised, I should plant whole cloves in late fall for garlic the following year. Sadly, I resigned myself to wait another season.

That fall my husband was designated the garlic-planter. I had a crazy week at work and the days were too short to plant in the evening. A freeze was coming after a mild autumn, so he would have to take over the duties. It hadn’t occurred to me that he had never before been set loose on the garden without supervision. The next spring little sprouts of green could be found in random patches around the plot. Some had been planted so deep that they were preserved in the coolness of the dirt and I upturned them with my trowel at various moments throughout the summer, their shoots never finding their way to the sunlight. I wasn’t sure when to harvest them, so I waited until the tops had gone completely brown – perhaps waited a bit too long as some tops had disappeared, leaving no marker for where the jewel of garlic could be found beneath the soil. Our first harvest was little more than a dozen heads, which I dried in the sun for a few days and then braided, hanging the two tails from a bent nail in my basement.

Last year I was determined to get my garlic in the ground by late fall (but not too late) and plant them in neat rows. I had maybe ten heads of garlic to plant and hoped to increase my harvest five times that.

Come spring, I was thrilled to see their little green shoots pushing through the dirt well before last frost. A few months later, their stalks were tall and green, although no scapes emerged. My plot neighbor’s garlic had beautiful pigtails and were taller, more robust looking. Had I done something wrong again, I wondered? When she harvested, I pulled up one head. Still green. I would wait.

If there is one thing I have learned from my garden it is patience. Patience to wait until next year to remember to plant the peas sooner or mulch the carrots better. Patience to wait to plant the tomato seedlings just a few more days in case of frost. Patience to give that pepper – my only pepper, I’ve never been good with peppers – another week of sunshine before plucking from the stalk.

And so I gave my garlic another week. And then a week more. My neighbor had long since dried hers and had added some to stir fries and long made pesto with the scapes. A few scapes did finally emerge – I found out that only some varieties of garlic produce them, which made me wonder if these scaped crusaders were leftovers from the season before – and the stalks widened just a bit more.

Then finally, after ignoring the garden for nearly a week, allowing mother nature to do my watering for me, I returned. The garlic stalks were dying back. The few scapes had flowered and then gone to seed. It was time to harvest.

I took a small shovel and dug around each one, giving a full six inches of space or more to lift the dirt around the head and not slice through it. I stacked them up as I dug around the perimeter of the garden, where I had planted them as a border on two sides. They totaled fifty heads when I was done. It had taken nearly three years of trying but I had finally grown fifty beautiful, perfect heads of garlic. My patience was rewarded.

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