You plant garlic in autumn; it overwinters in the ground, and gets the jump on spring. Long before other crops get transplanted, or sown seeds germinate, your garlic will already be inches tall, little shoots of neon spring green poking through the mulch. It will be the only thing growing in anyone’s garden, and your neighbors will feel inferior. For some of us, it’s as close as we ever get to being rock stars. Speaking of rock stars, my cousin Don Guido Ashkinazi plays a mean air guitar at the mere mention of garlic. He knows that the time has come.
“I am going to plant garlic,” he said, index finger in the air “at my next, earliest convenience.”
If you plant your garlic this fall, you can count on Chef Boy Ari to hold your hand through the entire cultivation process. But if you want to do even better, I highly recommend Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engeland. This book is as entertaining as it is informative. And like most really good books, it’s about more than what it’s about. The ultimate deadline for garlic planting is when the ground freezes.
But if you wait that long, the cloves won’t have time to establish much of a root system. So don’t wait. Go to the store, farmer’s market, or wherever you get your garlic, and pick out some garlic that you like. Some things to consider: How does it taste, in terms of flavor and hotness? How easy does it peel—like a prom dress or like a coat of paint? Where was it grown?
You want a variety that you know can grow well here, so don’t buy garlic from other climates.
You must decide between softneck and hardneck garlic (or grow both.) You can tell which it is by examining the stem coming out of the center of the head. If the stem has a rigid core, it is hardneck. If the stem is floppy, it’s softneck.
Hardneck garlic sends up a flower in June (that rigid core is the flowering stalk). The flower is pretty, curling around like a cartoon pig’s tail, then uncurling and standing up before opening. The flower is a delicacy in Asia, edible in 10,000 ways. If you grow hardneck garlic, you will need to decide if and when to pick the flowers, because picking the flowers influences the bulb size and storage. If you grow softneck, you don’t have to decide. You can braid softneck garlic, not hardeck. Softneck is more forgiving about not harvesting at the proper time. If you leave hardneck in the ground too long, it might not store as well. Hardneck bulbs are more symmetrical, like spokes on a wheel dividing the cloves around a central axis. I must admit, I have always been partial to hardneck, especially the Spanish Roja variety that I grow. The peel comes off in one piece, the flavor is full and strong, it looks pretty, I dig playing with the flowers, and it grows BIG. Bigger than softneck—or so I thought. But one day, Blue-Eyed Dixie cornered me at the farmer’s market. “Hey [Chef Boy Ari]” she said. “Soft-neck garlic does too grow big, it’s not as bad as you say to peel, and blah blah blah. Plus, you can braid it! So stop dissing on softneck!”
Victor Vector, my mayonnaise soul-brother, concurs. “Size is a cultural effect” (i.e., nurture, not nature) says Vector. Indeed, Don Guido Ashkinazi’s wife, Green Zebra, just grew some softneck cojones that would make a porn star blush. “As for peeling,” says Vector, “the softneck we grow peels fine: one stroke—not like that shitty Californian white shit.”
After you have prepared your ground for planting, carefully break apart your garlic heads into cloves, making sure not to break off the scab at the base of each clove. Don’t remove the peels. Plant the cloves about six inches apart, with about an inch of dirt over the tops, and make sure you plant them scab-side down. Each individual clove will grow into a whole head.
Garlic is a heavy feeder, so why not spread a little llama manure, or composted steer or horse shit on top? The next step is mulching, the importance of which Engeland waxes upon majestically in his book: “I mulch with the dedication of a champion chess player and the fervent sincerity of a young priest.”
Mulch regulates the soil from swinging to the extremes of temperature and moisture, and helps maintain an active microbial layer on the soil surface.
Myself, I like a very thin sprinkling of hardwood leaves, covered with a thin layer of straw. And personally, I think you can wait on applying the mulch until late February. Get a bag or two of leaves, and a supply of straw (no seeds!), now, and then sit tight till it’s time. If you mulch now, it won’t do anything but blow away in the winter winds. As winter breaks and the ground starts to expand and contract with fluctuating temperatures—that’s when you need the mulch.
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