My husband thinks he’s Italian.
OK, maybe he is Italian, but it’s definitely diluted from his first-generation American grandfather. This hasn’t squelched his penchant for many traditional Italian activities, including gardening. And he’s quite successful as a gardener. I may have previously made mention of some of our bumper crops of vegetables like cucumbers and beans. However, he had his own personal “Moby Dick” in the most Italian plant of them all: garlic.
With high hopes, he would plant each fall. Come July, after some anxious digging, the earth would reveal a passable, but slightly anemic looking, bunch of garlic. It would last us through fall, maybe a few weeks into winter, and then I’d be off to the market in search of organic garlic bulbs, not always an easy item to procure. It became a personal quest for my husband. We all suffered through his mild depression brought on by the July harvest. Until this year. Let’s just say that in our house, Moby has met his maker and my Ahab is a happy man.
The garlic plant is a biennial bulb that is planted in early fall, traditionally around Columbus Day weekend. Each clove off of a bulb can be planted to produce a new bulb. It is suggested that the larger the bulb you start with, the larger the bulbs you’ll end up with. Once you’ve planted the cloves, keep them well watered for a few weeks. It’s a good idea to cover them with a layer of straw to help keep them protected during the winter months. Then leave them alone and let mother nature do her thing.
Keep an eye on the plant come late spring. You’ll notice the stalk will start to curl, like a pig’s tail, and form a pointed tip that resembles an arrowhead. These are garlic scapes. At this point, the scapes are ready and should be harvested. If they are left alone, they will flower. Though flowers are pretty, you want the plant to expend its energy on the garlic bulb, not on an inedible decoration. In a previous blog, I gave a recipe for garlic scape pesto that I highly recommend. It freezes well and requires very little time or effort.
The garlic bulbs themselves need a few more weeks to be ready. You can tell when the plant is ready to be harvested when the top third has died off, or turned brown. Then it’s time for the moment of truth.
Unlike a tomato or pepper that one can admire as it grows and ripens, waiting for the perfect moment to pluck it from the vine, garlic matures under the earth, like it’s relative the onion. So it can be a real nail-biter when you begin pulling the plant at harvest.
Once you’ve pulled up the bulbs, I would strongly suggest rinsing them off outside. They hold lots of dirt and one may find an angry spouse following behind one with a broom and dustpan. Not that I would know anything about dirt all over my kitchen floor and mud clogging up my kitchen sink, my husband is far too conscientious for such barbaric behavior.
Moving on, after cleaning the bulb, the garlic is not quite ready yet. You can certainly eat it at this point, but for storage purposes, the garlic needs to be cured. Some gardeners prefer braiding the stalks of several bulbs together and then hanging them for a two-week minimum before storing them in a cool, dark, dry place (a pantry can be ideal for garlic). Braiding looks nice and keeps it neat. However, it can be time consuming and you can instead just tie the stalks together with twine or another roping before hanging.
The first few years, our garlic hung from the rafters of our garage. At some point, my husband found this distasteful and began searching for an alternate curing location. What better spot than my family room? I mean really, who doesn’t love coming to a house that smells as if we have an over-the-top fear of vampires? Even though the smell only lasts a few days, I might suggest you go the garage route.
Now back to my own story and my husband’s slaying of the beast. We were feeling pretty good about this year's crop. He had planted our entire bed at the community garden with hard-necked garlic, which grow better in our region than soft-necked, and watched it grow taller than any of his previous crops. Garlic loves rich soil and our bed was full of Long Island compost. The scapes were prolific and delicious. So when the mild winter and the state of the plant in late June found him harvesting a couple of weeks before normal, I was hopeful that we could avoid the garlic-induced pall. I needn’t have worried. I could hear the victory cry from miles away.
Twenty-five pounds of garlic now hang from the exposed beams of my living room. Didn’t you know that’s what our exposed beams are for? And even the hearty bunches of mint and lavender hanging next to them could not suppress the stench — I mean, aroma.
So now what? Well, that’s where you won’t hear any complaints from me. I can incorporate garlic into nearly any meal. As a matter of fact, I usually have a hard time keeping it out. One of my most requested dishes is a cold tortellini salad that is perfect for any summer potluck you may attend.
1 7-ounce package of cheese tortellini
1 cup cubed mozzarella, ¾” cubes
½ cup olive oil
3 cloves crushed garlic
1 tbsp. brown mustard
¼ cup fresh basil, chopped
⅛ cup fresh mint, chopped
¾ tsp. salt
pepper to taste
Cook tortellini according to package directions. Rinse with cool water and let chill to about room temperature. In a separate bowl, combine last 7 ingredients and whisk well. Add to cooled tortellini, coating the pasta. Mix in mozzarella. Mangia.
Laurie Nigro, Laurie Nigro is a mother of two, wife of a gardener, and co-founder of River and Roots Community Garden. Laurie resides downtown and though she came to gardening by accident, has welcomed it into her life. Contact her by email to email@example.com.