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Flash in the Pan

Life and death in the garlic patch



The garlic harvest is in, and garlic growers all around the Northern Hemisphere are rejoicing for the sweet richness curing in their barns, garages and Ping-Pong chambers. My kitchen smells like garlic; my sweat smells like garlic, too. Judging from the mosquitoes, my blood even smells like garlic. By the way, if your garlic is still in the ground from last fall’s planting, GET IT OUT! If you don’t know what to do, e-mail me.

There is something otherworldly about fresh, live, uncured garlic, and its habit-forming neon flavor. Chop and add it raw to your meal and it’s like fireworks on your food. Cook it, and the whole household will be crouching around the kitchen in a puddle of drool. Garlic is as good as 10 mothers. Indeed, there is serious power in garlic, and mystery. Today we will consider the question of whether or not you should de-flower your garlic plants to make bigger bulbs. It’s the same principal as castrating bulls into steers, and begs the question: What is the effect on the whole plant?

Of course, I’m talking hardneck garlic here. There is also softneck garlic, which doesn’t flower like that. I only grow hardneck, but I’m not dissing softneck—it’s a personal choice. I’ll get into the pros and cons of both kinds in a few weeks, so you can make informed seed choices before it’s time to plant.

Today’s garlic story starts with the hardneck garlic that didn’t get neutered. You see, although there is solid evidence that deflowered plants make bigger bulbs, there is also solid evidence that the bulbs from non-deflowered plants store longer. So I compromise, leaving flowers on about 20 percent of my plants, to make sure that some lasts until mid-June, when I can start eating next year’s crop. Thus, I trade a bit of bulb size for year-round garlic security.

When you leave garlic flowers on the plant, the flowers swell into clusters, or “heads,” of marble-sized “bulbuls.” These bulbul nuggets of vitamin G-spot sure do look pretty, and they taste just like you-know-what. In fact, they are you-know-what, 100 percent! In Thailand, they chop ’em and toss ’em in the wok, not even bothering to peel them; you never notice the peel. You can even add whole flower heads to stews, and they sweeten into an edible garlic creme bouquet. Martha, eat your heart out.

So, right before garlic harvest, I cut the bulbul heads off the garlic I let flower, walking the garlic patch with clippers and bowl. The bulbs stand straight up, bursting with potencia, delicate tendrils of garlic genitalia unfolding from the bulbul tips. My clippers slide loosely up each flower stalk until they hit the head, and then pull the head onto the side of the bowl, like a chicken’s head stretched across the chopping block. Clip. Another head rolls into the bowl. Wearing nothing but shorts, my skin, from my belly up, is covered with the clear juice from the end of each decapitated stalk. Garlic juice dripping everywhere; everything smelling like garlic.

The juice on my skin dried bright white, like war paint. It was crusty, like dried bodily fluid. Shower? Hell, no! No vampires, mosquitoes, or pesky coeds for Chef Boy Ari! (Actually, my cousin Don Guido Ashkinazi claims that babes dig garlic. “Well,” he says, “Garlic’s qualities as an aphrodisiac are...highly overrated. I mean, it works, but it’s nothing like strawberries and chocolate—or a vasectomy.”)

The next day I’m walking across the yard and my cat is playing with a half-dead bird, who is squatting in shock, waiting for another blow. Sickened, I remember the last bird I tried to save, and I ponder the task of putting this bird out of its misery as quickly as possible. I go get the clippers, next to my bowl of garlic heads.

First I must remove Goose, my cat, who is making blood-curdling primal sounds, his tiny muscles flexed into crystallized adrenaline. His claws grip at the turf when I pick him up. Goose watches from the window as I pick up the trembling bird in my cupped hands. Nothing looks broken, so I drop my hands to see if the bird will open its wings. It flies away. Chef Boy Ari exhales a great sigh of relief, since he doesn’t know any recipes for house finch.

If you’re ready for a garlic adventure of your own next summer, then it’s time to think about planting this fall, which means now is the time to start thinking about where to plant. If you have a spot in your garden that drains well and gets good light, great. If you want to replace part of your lawn with something more useful, even better! Go get some black plastic (Ace Hardware, Quality Supply) and cover the area in question, weighting down the plastic all around the edges so it doesn’t blow away. In about a month, under the plastic will be fluffy worm poop, ready to become next year’s garlic patch—a much better use of space than lawn. 

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