Growing garlic

In my household, we eat a lot of garlic.

Garlic is great for your health. It contains cancer-fighting chemicals, relaxes blood vessels, and increases blood flow. But an increasing amount of garlic in supermarkets comes from China, which produces 75% of the world’s supply of the pungent herb. Concern about levels and types of pesticides and soil contaminants found on food imports, both fresh and processed, is causing many people, including me, to look for safe and reliable sources of food. So I am starting to grow my own.My garlic shipment has arrived!

I was late in placing my order this year so I didn’t get the specific variety I wanted, but I think the organic ‘Red Toch’ softneck garlic I got from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, VA will be more than satisfactory.

Red Toch softneck organic garlic bulbs and planting instructions

I was really pleased with the bulbs when they arrived: They were heavy and solid, with no mushy or moldy cloves. I’ll be ordering from them again.

I’m mixing up my vegetable and herb plantings this year, starting some in containers and mixing some in with ornamentals in established beds. In fact, I got a few of these cloves into the new rose bed last week, just before the temperature plunged.

container-readyBut now I’m ready to start my containers. I started with a clean, frost-proof pot, to which I added a mixture of potting compost, perlite, and sand, about three-quarters of the way to the top.

Homemade compost (left) and worm castings (right).

Homemade compost (left) and worm castings (right).

To that, I mixed in a tiny bit of lime per the planting instructions, as well as a quart of worm castings and some additional homemade compost.

garlic cloves planted in containerI planted the individual cloves about six inches apart, with skins attached. The skins help protect the cloves from rotting in the ground. Some of these cloves are planted a bit too close to the side of the pot; if I can get out to the shed and find more containers of a suitable size, I’ll transplant a few of these before they put on much growth. Finally, I topped off the container with an inch and a half of the compost and castings mix.

container-topped-off

Keeping the garlic watered is essential during the growth period. It’s been dry lately, so I’m hand-watering the containers and topping them off with a mulch of shredded leaves and bark to the rim of the container, to conserve the moisture we do get.

And now I wait. Between now and spring, I’ll be reading up on harvesting and curing. This sowing won’t be anywhere near enough to get us through the year, but I’ve got to start somewhere. Even after 20 years of gardening, I’m still finding that patience is a difficult concept for me to learn.

Growing garlic at home

We at the MHM household run through tons of garlic. Between heavy habits of Italian, Mexican, and Asian foods, and our semi-regular practice of roasting a whole chicken stuffed with lemon and garlic, I could probably grow an acre of it and still wish I had a bit more. But we must start somewhere.

‘Somewhere’ means half a pound, two weeks late. I meant to order my garlic several weeks ago, when I spent a rainy day picking out attractive starter packs from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalogue. I forgot that I was not the only one interested in starting some garlic. When I placed my order first thing this morning, I had to settle for my fourth choice, as my top three had sold out.

Garlic planting season begins October 15 for me, and runs through the first of December. Garlic likes fertile, well drained soil rich in organic matter (who doesn’t?). Individual cloves planted two inches deep in the fall develop substantial root systems before winter–all three weeks of it–sets in. Increasing warmth and light in the spring cue the plants to fatten their bulbs. At this time the gardener should ensure a steady supply of moisture, or suffer puny bulbs come harvest time. I promise that it is worth the trouble of watering regularly. Little is more disappointing than to seize a handful of garlic greens, intent upon unearthing one’s own weight in pungent, papery glory, and come up with little more than what was planted six months prior.

I ordered a half pound of Red Toch softneck garlic, an heirloom variety originating from the Republic of Georgia that performs well in the Southeast. The catalogue promises “spicy fragrance and consummate flavor.” I am considering interplanting some of it in my perennial beds, partly because I don’t have adequate space to dedicate to vegetables, and partly because I am intrigued by the lore of companion planting and want to discover if any benefits can be observed. We shall find out next spring.

Growing winter greens

I took advantage of dreary weather earlier this week and sowed some seed.

seed packets of winter veg

Two varieties of spinach (‘Regiment’ and ‘Noble Giant’), cilantro, mache, and chervil.

It has taken forty years for me to love spinach. Before I learned to eat it, I could appreciate it for its gorgeous, saturated green color. Is anything in nature as satisfying to behold, especially in winter, as that lush, vehement emerald green? And while I love a good spinach salad with pecans, blue cheese, and pears or berries, I am looking forward to trying this baked spinach gratin recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

spinach

Mache (Valerianella locusta) is a newfound favorite. It has a distinctive, nutty flavor that gives depth to winter salads and other dishes. Absurdly easy to grow (it is often found as a field weed in Europe), it is hardy to USDA Zone 5, and has robust levels of vitamins B6, B9, C, and E.

I have never grown chervil before. It is frequently used in French cooking, apparently, and is sometimes described as a sophisticated parsley, to which it is related. I was alarmed to learn it is also related to hemlock, that extremely toxic herb that killed Socrates. Another good reason not to forage (not that this practice, to be honest, has ever appealed to me). I will trust the seed packet and think up some good egg dishes.

chervil

Find chervil recipes at Fine Cooking.com

I am one of those people who believe one can never have too much cilantro (clearly, I don’t share the experience some people have of it tasting like soap). I adore Asian and Mexican food, in which it is commonly used. Cilantro (coriander, in seed form) is an herb that, once sown, one can always have provided the gardener allows one plant to go to seed. I gathered seed from a very healthy organic stand grown in a community garden I manage. I have perhaps a third of a quart jar of seed. Time to make some coriander chicken!

I’m putting a note on my calendar to sow more seed in two weeks’ time. I always forget to repeat-sow, meaning that when the weather gets truly cold I run out of my fresh veg. My goal this winter is to stay on top of the process.

Winter here is usually mild enough that I can grow these resilient plants with only mild protection. I use horticultural fleece when frost is expected, which has the added benefit of keeping any critters away. But until I can dig my fleece out, I am repurposing the kids’ old sandbox cover, made out of fiberglass window screening sewn around two lengths of capped PVC pipe. I can unroll this giant scroll (which did a brilliant job, by the way, of keeping cats and leaves out of the sandbox) over the newly planted greens and just wait for the harvest.

screened greens

Rain delay

This morning, it’s finally raining. We’ve been without rain for some weeks; officially, we’re in a moderate drought. It’s nice to see the rain barrels filling back up.

Rain days are the only thing that slow me down. I’ve noticed that when I feel like my plate is overfull with responsibilities and to-do items, I tend to flee to the nearest garden center for retail-horticultural therapy. I cannot promise myself to only get one item. While I never spend so much as to get into debt, I do from time to time feel a bit guilty about indulging in plant shopping when I could be alleviating my stress by actually turning to the work to be done and getting cracking.

There are three areas of the garden that are under active development. One of them is the front slope near the driveway, a barren plot about 20′ x 20′ devoid of organic matter, nutrition, drainage, or anything else. Except for the orange double daylilies which are strikingly similar to those planted along interstate highways around here. There’s a reason why those are the flower of choice.

blue slope

I am referring to this spot in my mind as the “blue slope” because I’m renovating the area in a blue palette, with touches of red-violet for punch. It gets western sun and is about as far from a water source as it’s possible to be, so I must force myself to refrain from planting the David Austin rose ‘Tradescant’ there….we’ll see how I hold out.

Last fall, I excavated the top four or five inches of soil from the northeast quadrant of the plot, and disposed of it because it Liriope spicata was running rampant through it. The only way to be rid of it is to dig it out entirely, and then be prepared to do spot removal for the rest of one’s life. They emerge from little white bubble like tubers, and creep via rhizomes throughout the toughest, driest, most obstinate soil. The smallest one seems to be able to repopulate a garden in short order.

I brought in a load of grit to improve drainage, and several yards of composted horse manure and tilled it in. Still awaiting the results of the soil test. If I were good, I would do the soil test first, and then plant after I had tilled in the necessary lime and so forth. But I’m not. I cannot wait to plant, so I do the necessary soil drainage and improvement work and wait for the test results later. I planted three Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ and five Eleymus something or other (still looking for that tag, you see). Mulched with a decent pine bark mulch and dug in about two cups of lime per plant. I assure you, that’s only a start. They seem to be doing very well. Also planted four Ruta graveolens from 2-inch cell packs. They may or may not be ‘Jackson’s Blue;’ I am not sure about that. They seem to be struggling along for the moment, but I expect they’ll take off well enough in April. Maybe by then the soil test results will be back.

Also planted about forty Allium azureum and half a dozen Allium ‘Globemaster.’ The Globemasters are already pushing up through the mulch, but I’m not seeing the azureums yet.

I managed to leave well enough alone through the winter, as we were finishing up a kitchen renovation and we had the holidays to deal with.

Then last Thursday, in a fit of delight over 75 degree weather in February, I fled to the plant store in search of Sambucus ‘Black Lace.’ Didn’t find it, but did find two Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Issai,’ two Salvia guaranitica, and three Santolina chamaecyparissus, which are happily installed. Actually, the santolinas are in a temporary spot, as I really can’t carry on with the development of the front slope until I get some large rocks installed. (My husband is thrilled.) I am looking forward to fall, when the Callicarpas will display their metallic violet fruit. I hope it resists the birds long enough for me to appreciate it.

Salvia 'Argentine Skies'

I am guilty of wandering off to the next project when the last is only 75% complete. If I have a New Year’s resolution, it’s to finish what I start. Now that I have declared it so, you may gently hold me to it.

I’ll let you in on the other areas under development in my next post. I must turn to the other things on the to-do list, like the 20 people coming over for brunch in the morning.