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.

Before the freeze

It’s going to get really cold tonight (for here), and possibly snow a bit, though not enough for the kids to miss school (hurrah!). The schools often cancel classes at the slightest suggestion of snow, so I’m proud of them for holding off. For now.

A bag of garlic sits on my kitchen counter, patiently waiting for me to plant it.   Unfortunately, I don’t have ground prepared properly for it, and life, as it so often does, reprioritized things for me so that I never got the containers I planned to use to grow it.  I am interested in companion planting and in mixing ornamentals and vegetables in the same garden beds, though, so I ran out as it began to almost-sleet to pop in some of the garlic by Rosa ‘Sophy’s Rose.’ Five cloves, six inches apart, right in front of the shrub. I  write this to help me remember they are there, because in spring I expect their greenery to be mixed in with lots of other green bits. Already I realize that the garlic is likely mixed in with the pale pink Chionodoxas I planted but forgot to mark.

I planted one fat clove in a crowded container with Rosa ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’ before realizing there wasn’t room for more. Roses are said to combine well with alliums and their relatives (onions, garlic, and chives): gardening folklore, if not science, advises that alliums repel borers, aphids, moles, and black spot.  Half a dozen cloves went into the container with the snap peas, and a dozen cloves in with the mixed herbs and sorrel. I still have half a head to go. Maybe this is not the time to order shallots.

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.

My new favorite fruit: persimmons

I have been reading and rereading Lee Reich’s Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, becoming increasingly obsessed with acquiring and growing fruits unknown or forgotten. One of the fruits Reich recommends is the persimmon.

kaki persimmon 'Fuyu'

He discusses two types: American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana and the kaki persimmon, Diospyros kaki.  He claims that a few people grow the kaki persimmon, and that the American persimmon is virtually unheard of.

Not ’round here, where they are native if not widely cultivated. I remember eating persimmons as a young child–my neighbor had a tree, and my friends and I ate them when they fell to the ground if the bees, bugs, and squirrels didn’t get to them first.   I remember them being sticky, squishy, and delicious, with rich juice coating my fingers (and arms, and legs).

Unknown, no; but forgotten–I can confess to that. It has been 30 years, easily, since I last ate one out of hand. But in the grocery store last week, what should be on display but a tower of ‘Fuyu’ persimmons.

persimmon aerial view

The ‘Fuyu’ is a kaki cultivar. It is non-astringent, which is an important quality to be aware of  before embarking upon persimmon-based culinary adventures. As I can attest from youthful experience, eating even slightly unripened fruits is ill-advised. In an interview, Reich compared the experience of eating an unripened astringent persimmon to putting a vacuum cleaner into one’s mouth. That’s pretty accurate. I think I remember a searing sensation just below the hinges of my jawbone and then panicking as my face fought the force of a black hole. I never tried that again. Experience, you are the greatest teacher.

Persimmons, when at their best, should feel like a tomato you wouldn’t buy because it wouldn’t make it home from the market unless swaddled in bubble wrap. You can feel the fruit’s skin only just containing the juice. Then, they taste like perfection. Richer than black plum but with a similar texture, it tastes to me like honey mixed with a healthy dollop of apple butter. Reich describes it as “something like a wet, dried apricot that has been drizzled with honey and given a dash of spice.”

persimmon flesh

Hardy in USDA Zones 7-10 (tolerating winter lows of 10F or -12C), ‘Fuyu’ persimmons are seedless and do not require cross-pollination. More hardy varieties of kaki persimmon,  including ‘Saijo’ and ‘Sheng,’ can withstand winters in Zones 5 and 6 (-20F or -29C), and the American persimmon is hardier still, thriving in Zones 4b to 9.

After the first frost each year (which should happen for me this week), a local brewery makes a persimmon winter ale using foraged fruit of Diospyros virginiana. (The fruits of the American persimmon do not lose their vacuum-cleaner astringency until after frost.) It’s tasty if you enjoy a winter ale-type beer. My skills with comestibles do not extend to home brewing (a project for another season, perhaps?), but I do remember eating a heavenly persimmon pudding in my past. I think I’ll head to the farmer’s market this week to stock up on persimmons and see if this recipe comes close to what I remember.

Now, where to put my persimmon tree?

Sources for persimmon trees:

Tips on Growing Persimmons:

Preserving summer: Crock pot cherry tomato sauce

In the community garden where I work, yellow pear tomatoes grow abundantly. They don’t seem to be terribly popular, though, with many people besides me.

I adore them. The plants produce abundant fruit that ripens quickly. The delights of popping them straight into the mouth from the vine are well known and do not need to be recounted here. And it’s far less devastating to find one infested cherry tomato in a cluster of otherwise-fine fruit than it is to anticipate harvesting that one big slicing tomato you’ve been nursing along, only to find that on the back side of the fruit there’s a huge, oozing hole edged with gray-green fur.

yellow pear tomatoes

I came home last week with two healthy pints of fruit, to add to the remainder of the two quarts I had from last week which we haven’t finished yet. The tomatoes will never be as good as they are right now–unless, perhaps, they’ll save in a sauce?

I’ve never tried making a sauce with cherry tomatoes. Time for an experiment.

I should note that I have no experience in canning. That’s a project for another season, after much study on food safety. But freezing is the one technique of food preservation in which I feel competent, and I have a big freezer.

Recipe: Crock pot cherry tomato sauce

This recipe is easiest in a crock pot or slow cooker, but I’m also providing regular-oven instructions.

In a medium saucepan, I warmed about three tablespoons of olive oil. To that, I added three tablespoons of chopped organic garlic from a jar. I love garlic. Next year, it will be my home-grown garlic, but we all must start someplace. If you don’t like garlic as much as I do, just add a little less.

step 1: olive oil and garlic

I washed and capped the tomatoes, and sliced them in half. I didn’t bother to peel them (can you imagine?). I then added the tomatoes to the pan, covered it, and left it in a warm oven (250-275 F, 121-135 C) for two hours to slowly melt together.

In a slow cooker: add all ingredients to the crock, cover, and cook on high for one hour or low for two. Maybe keep an eye on the moisture level if you cook on high, as cooking time and temperature can vary depending on your individual slow cooker. You’ll know when it’s done when everything has turned into a delicious pulpy mush:

fresh basil slivered into sauce

For the final 30 minutes, I snipped in a tablespoon’s worth of the last fresh basil leaves I’ll see this year, and stirred in a pinch of coarse salt.

final reduced tomato sauce

This sauce is glorious, and utterly simple. When it cooled, I poured it into a small, clean glass jar and froze it. I hope it tastes just as good in January!

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

Savoring summer

I am completely inexpert at preserving what grows in my garden. But I have resolved to start learning.

I’m starting simply: chives. What could be easier to grow? And what tastes better in the dead of winter than fresh chives snipped into potato and leek soup? Or on scrambled eggs?

chive blossom

I saved a nice-looking jam jar and ran it through the dishwasher. Then I harvested and washed a large pile of chives, and took the scissors to them.

harvested chives

They’re clean and ready for mixing into all kinds of winter dishes. I’ll keep this jar in the freezer and take out bits as I need them.

No special canning knowledge necessary.