For millennia, people have appreciated the culinary and medicinal powers of garlic. The ancient Egyptians swore their oaths on garlic bulbs. Garlic was among the items found in King Tut’s tomb, and this lowly vegetable was so highly regarded in ancient times that it was used as currency.
To me, garlic is both a kitchen essential and a thing of beauty.
Many people plant their garlic in September and overwinter it. But I wait until the worst of winter is over before planting mine – and besides, in September, all my garden beds are still occupied with the summer and fall crops.
I use a variation on an old family theme to time my garlic crop. My grandfather’s system was to “plant on the shortest day of the year, harvest on the longest”. He worked as a gardener for the City of Victoria, beautifying parks and streets, and in his spare time kept a highly productive vegetable garden that occupied just about every square inch of the family’s Fernwood Street backyard.
Gabriola Island’s climate isn’t as mild as Victoria’s, so my planting and harvest dates are a bit later than Grandpa’s. I usually plant garlic in late February – March if the weather is iffy – and I put row cover over the patch for the first few weeks, to keep the robins from digging up the cloves.
I pull the garlic plants (by then about three feet tall) in September and let them dry in our solarium for several weeks, then I clean and trim the bulbs. Before moving these to the pantry for storage, I take one last, but very important step: I select out the largest, most perfect bulbs, isolate them in a separate basket, and add a label: “For planting – do not eat”. As a result, the size of the garlic bulbs we harvest has increased steadily each year.
For each of the past few years I’ve planted about 100 cloves, which produce 20 to 25 pounds of organic garlic – more than enough for our year-round needs. About 75% of the crop is a hardneck variety (photo above), originating from a single clove given to us by a neighbour a decade ago.
The rest are softneck (photo below),the type that can be braided, though I never bother with that. Softneck garlic is more finicky in the kitchen, as the cloves are smaller and harder to peel, but it keeps longer in storage so proves very useful in late spring and summer – especially when the basil is ready for making pesto.
I managed to get the garlic into the ground by my target date of February 27 this year. But before I did, I couldn’t resist making a few photos. Who could resist the simple beauty of these lowly bulbs?