When we harvested our patch of garlic at the end of November, memories came rushing back. In early June in the same patch of earth, we dug up what felt like a million jerusalem artichokes. Our eyes bulged as tuber after tuber stacked up in a pile, the progeny of just two plants. I was deliriously happy, not just because of such a surprising gardening success, but to share some lovely moments in the garden, in the sun, with my husband and daughter. I was close to nine months pregnant and I knew everything would change soon.
We excavated all the artichokes, scraped the soil back over, added compost, and then poked garlic cloves into the earth in tight rows. Greta was digging in a little pile of compost and squealed with delight at every worm she found. At dinner that night I felt like toasting my beautiful family and the fact we would soon be four. After we put Greta to bed, Leigh and I spread out the artichokes and marvelled that they covered the whole kitchen table! Then we packed them away. We also packed the rest of last summer’s garlic under the kitchen sink. Both tasks felt like battening down for winter, and somewhat less romantically, I just felt blissful relief at ticking some jobs off my list before the new baby arrived.
Contractions started in bed that night – and after the day I’d had, it felt really right. A boy, Finian, was born in the early evening the next day. And so, when we were harvesting our garlic a few weeks ago, it occurred to me he was exactly one garlic season old!
I think garlic has become the best, most rewarding vegetable we grow. In a relatively small space (say, 1 square metre) you can grow a supply for the whole year without needing to buy any. By doing this you also sidestep the quandary of whether to spend your money on expensive local garlic (which is also sometimes difficult to find), or the imported stuff that is terrible in terms of food miles and is chemically treated. Garlic has a long growing season roughly from winter to summer, but it more or less grows itself with a bit of watering in dry weather. Here are some good things I’ve learnt about growing garlic:
- Have fun choosing from the hundreds of varieties of garlic available! I get mine from Diggers. I like to look for garlic that has long storage, so it can last a whole year, or close to. (I also really like ‘hardneck’ varieties – see final dot point below.)
- Grow garlic in a part of the garden that is sunny in winter and spring. The more sun, the bigger the garlic. I have read that sun actually has more bearing on the size of the garlic than the initial size of the cloves you plant, so it’s okay not to plant enormous cloves.
- Plant in good rich soil of course, space the cloves about 10 cm apart, and always plant your garlic in a different spot from last year to avoid contracting diseases.
- Keep the water up to the garlic until it’s nearing the end of the season and you can detect that the plants are starting to wilt/yellow. This means the plants are naturally dying and the garlic is maturing, and it doesn’t need any more water.
- Harvest the garlic before the plants have fully yellowed and died off. If you leave them in the ground until fully yellowed, the stems will rip out. (It’s not a major problem as you can still dig the garlic up, but without a stem you won’t be able to tie the garlic in a bundle.)
- If you are lucky enough that your garlic forms flower shoots towards the end of the growing season, cut them off and eat them as an added bonus of growing garlic! Garlic shoots are also called scapes, and hardneck varieties of garlic produce them. They are one of the most delicious vegetables – thin green stems about 5 mm across, juicy and crisp and a little reminiscent of asparagus, and just faintly garlicky. As far as I know, the shoots aren’t grown commercially in Australia (you can buy bundles of fresh shoots at Asian markets, but unfortunately these are imported from China). To harvest garlic shoots, just cut them when they have reached around a ruler’s length, well before they open into flower (the stems are tough by this stage). Below is a photo of a delicious stir-fry of pork and garlic shoots that I made with our own shoots last year.