I think about garlic quite a lot, but these days it is on my mind constantly. I have a friendly if insistent reminder in the upper reaches of our old rickety garage: many bundles of this season’s garlic hang from the rafters, waiting for the right moment to be put in the soft ground. I watch eagerly as the rain and cold of our northern California winter approaches. I typically wait until after the rain begins, and the earth is soft and friable, and the garlic likes it. It’s easy to plant then, and I don’t have to water. This next week or two might be the time to think about planting.
I began growing garlic a long time ago. I used to plant masses of it, and I still grow enough that some people think I’m a little wigged about it, but I’ve toned it down in recent years. I’m never sure anymore, but I think I harvest about 140 or 150 heads, something like that. I give a good amount away as special gifts, for seed and eating alike. I keep about 20 per cent back for planting. Mainly, it’s just pleasant to do. I love when I have it hanging about, drooping down from the ceiling, a few heads sitting in the mortar; or earlier on, when the plants are still in the ground, slowly developing their subterranean heads, waiting to shoot up their curly necks.
Garlic belongs to my trinity of favorite foods, along with artichokes and wild fennel. Fortunately, all three thrive in our climate. We have lots of artichokes in our garden – the gorgeous purple ones whose seed I brought back from Italy – but garlic goes so far and lasts so long, if stored well. It can uplift so many dishes. It is a pillar of my kitchen.
There are many versions of garlic soup, but I think my favorite one, made in the spring with new garlic pulled from the ground when the head just begins to form its individual cloves, but just barely. The garlic is simmered in a dreamy, delicate chicken broth, paper-thin slivers of new garlic floating inside it, thin so the soup doesn’t have to cook for long. In the middle sits a single, whole, soft, sweet head of the same roasted new garlic. I peel back the papery outer skin, trim the stem short, and remove the roots. I place the heads side-by-side in a shallow ceramic dish, splash in some water, sprinkle with a little salt, a few drops of olive oil, cover carefully, and roast at 350ºF until completely soft. When done, I place a head, turned golden from its time in the oven, in the middle of a pasta bowl, ladle in homemade chicken broth, and grate a little parmesan over it. I invite friends.
If you have a farmers’ market near you, the garlic sold by top-notch organic farms such as River Dog, Full Belly, and Catalan is great for planting. They all sell purple varieties, and their garlic is very similar to each other’s. The advantage to buying from a seller rather than from a farmer’s market is the selection of varieties. I especially like Filaree Farm in Washington state, but that may be because I bought my first organic garlic seed from them. It’s kind of late now to find seed garlic, but you might be able to scrounge some up somewhere. However, quality is important, so don’t buy just anything anywhere.
Garlic falls into two groups, soft neck and hard neck. I prefer to plant hard neck. Its subspecies is ophioscorodon, which means, “snake neck,” because of its curling, snake-like scape, or shoot. I love the red varieties of the French Rocambole group, with 8-10 larger cloves, and the Purple Stripes, that have slightly smaller cloves, but the are so many lovely ones – Persian, German, Russian, Romanian, Georgian, Armenian – you can indulge almost any whim you wish to.
Garlic likes soft, rich soil fairly high in nitrogen. If you plan ahead, plant a leguminous cover crop such as peas or fava beans, and turn the plants in 3 or 4 weeks ahead of the garlic, after you’ve harvested the pods. You can mulch the plants to keep the soil moisture even, if you wish.
Planting is simple and easy. Gently break apart the cloves the day you plan to plant them, or at most the day before; the cloves dry very quickly once they’re broken apart, and that’s no good. You want perfect cloves to plant. Choose the cloves that have the largest basal plate, the little, flat side that was directly attached to the roots. A larger basal plate produces a larger head. (You therefore want to select for large basal plates over a few seasons, so you produce exquisite, large heads.
Plant the cloves pointed end upward, flat end downward; the roots grow from the basal plate. Space the cloves in rows about 18 inches apart, every 6 inches or so, 2-3 inches deep in the soil. If you’ve timed it right, you won’t have to water until late spring, and then only every week or two, depending on the dryness of the soil, shade, wind, etc. Take care with your watering, though, as too much water will cause the garlic to rot or have poor storing quality, and too little (making dry soil) will produce small heads.
As it matures, the hard neck plant will send up its scape, which is what carries the flower seeds in a structure called a bulbil. Bulbils can supply seeds for planting, but they produce very small heads, and it takes several seasons to get large, usable heads, so it’s much easier to plant good quality cloves. It is best to cut the scape after it has made a loop or two, so the plant’s energy goes toward bulb rather than seed production. When the leaves begin to dry, stop watering. Leave the garlic in ground another few weeks. Check the bulbs for readiness by carefully scraping back some of the soil around it, and feeling about for formed cloves. You can see them, too. If they’re ready, dig them carefully with a spade or pitchfork, loosening the soil around them, then pulling the plant carefully free. If they’re not ready, give them another couple of weeks.
After you harvest, tie the garlic in bundles and hang in a coolish, dry, ventilated place. It will keep for a long time. Be sure to save some for next year’s crop!
Here’s what to do with the scapes:
Cut them into 3 or 4-inch pieces, steam until tender, sauté them in olive oil for a few minutes, squeeze on a bit of lemon, grate reggiano or pecorino on top, and wow!