Monday, October 14, 2013

My Garden Highlight of 2013 : Homegrown Garlic

This year's garden was...meh.  I feel guilty even saying that -- I mean, the fact that you can plant tiny seeds and get any food from them later is nothing short of miraculous. But this year's harvest? Not much to brag about. The cucumber plants put out a few, but not in quantities like last year. The beets were radish-sized (that was my fault -- I bought the wrong variety). The greens (that weren't eaten by snails) were mostly pretty bitter. My cauliflower turned purple (again, my fault). Slugs went to town on my cabbage. The majority of my tomatoes are turning red in my kitchen right now instead of on the vine (though I did get a lot and they were spared by our early frost). The zucchinis didn't really produce (again, my fault. I ran out of space and tried growing zucchini in a pot. Doesn't really work.). My pumpkins turned about half-orange before an early frost.

That said, the parsley I grew from seed has provided all the parsley I've needed over the summer and even now. The peas were dependable as ever. The raspberries and blackberries in my yard produced more than last year (mmmmm...raspberry jam). So don't think I'm ungrateful or anything when I say the garden this year was just...meh.

Except for the garlic.  Oh my goodness, the garlic was the highlight of my garden this year! And I'm telling you this because NOW (mid-fall) is the time of year to plant garlic

I'd tried growing garlic in the past with little success. Turns out, it was because I was just using cloves of garlic from the grocery store. When I would grow the ones from the grocery store, the leaves would come up and I'd get excited, only to dig up walnut size heads of it (the cloves were teeny-tiny). 

Determined to grow my own garlic successfully, I did some research and ordered my garlic bulbs. I went with the garlic variety called Music -- one of the most popular varieties, especially since it's one of the easiest to grow. I picked a hardneck variety over softneck because I'd heard that it was better for harsh winter climates. I also went with hardneck because I wanted the garlic scapes (more on those later).

I planted mine right around Halloween last year with high hopes (I could've sworn I took a picture, but I can't find it now). I've heard of soaking garlic bulbs in a mixture of water, baking soda, and fish emulsion first, but I didn't. I'm sure it's helpful and I was going to try, but I was worried I had procrastinated too much and just wanted to get the bulbs in. 

I loosened the dirt in the bed I chose, buried each clove (pointy end of the clove up) about three or so inches down, put a layer of straw over the bulbs as a protective mulch, and hoped for the best.  It was actually a lot of fun to plant a crop when the weather was turning colder -- it felt kind of strange but in an awesome way, to think I was planting something in late October that I wouldn't enjoy until the following summer. (For some tips on choosing and planting garlic you can look here, here, and here.) 

We had a really cold and really snowy winter here, and from time to time, I'd look over at the bed where I planted my garlic and wonder. Even with our rough winter, when the snow melted little green leaves poked above the soil. 

Those green leaves just kept getting taller and taller. Still, I didn't get too excited since there was a chance that there could be nice long leaves with only tiny little bulbs beneath the soil.

In late May, I started noticing the little shoot coming out of the middle of the green leaves, called the scape. It's the flowering part of the bulb that gets sent off about a month before the garlic should be harvested. It's important to cut the scapes off fairly soon, since they'll interfere with how the bulb grows and use up energy that should go to the bulb instead of the flower. The cool thing about these scapes is that they're edible and they're delicious (and they make a pretty great accessory a la Creature from the Black Lagoon, as you can see above). 

I used the garlic scapes to make THE best pesto that's ever come out of my kitchen. It had such a great garlic but-not-too-garlicky flavor. I would honestly grow garlic just for the scapes so I could make this pesto again. For some other ideas for how to use garlic scapes, check out this link

Around the beginning of July, my garlic was showing signs that it was time to harvest because the lower leaves were turning brown and dying. The key is to harvest the garlic when the lower leaves are brown but the upper ones are still green. You don't want to wait until the leaves die completely because that can affect the bulbs negatively, making them split and the coverings of the cloves won't develop properly. As excited as I was to dig those garlic bulbs out and see how big they were, I moved slowly and carefully since garlic heads are pretty delicate and if you accidentally cut or bruise them, their storage life is diminished.

To my delight, the bulbs were as big, if not bigger than the ones I've used from the grocery store for years. They all turned out beautifully -- every single clove I planted resulted in a head of garlic. I couldn't wait to whip up some kind of Italian dish to use them in.

Thing is, it's totally fine to use the garlic straight from the garden, but if you want it last for months, you have to cure it. You can find a great and thorough post about curing and storing garlic here

You know how a supermarket tomato can't even compare to the way a homegrown tomato tastes? The same goes for garlic. My mom (she grew garlic for the first time this season) and I can't stop gushing about how much better this garlic tastes, how much it adds to the things we cook. The flavor is so much stronger and delicious. It will be hard to ever go back to buying it from the store when I run out. This fall, both my mom and I are planting extra garlic in our gardens -- we're totally determined to each get a year's supply.

Seriously. If you have a garden space, order some seed garlic and plant it soon. Next summer, you will be thanking yourself that you did.

{This post is linked up to Homestead Barn Hop.}
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