X-ray image of garlic clove, 2010.

X-ray image of a garlic clove. (Image by Antonio Fortunati, 2010.)

Last fall I did something every gardener should try: grow garlic. It’s not that hard, you can grow it in a pot or in the ground, and well, garlic is awesome.

Growing garlic takes nearly all year, but not that much effort. Plant it right around now, before the ground freezes, let it hibernate under the snow all winter long, water them in the summer til it’s time to pull them out, then hang them somewhere to cure for two weeks. There’s some luck and chance involved, but that’s what makes gardening fun, and you’ll be that much more proud once you’re pulling your precious, delicious heads out of the ground next summer.

Brined garlic cloves

Bright white brined garlic cloves. (Image via Katayama)

The first time I grew my own garlic, my head swam with the possibility of putting local pizzerias out of business with my own signature garlic knots, selling the rest in such large quantities that I could retire a very rich and smelly man. If you ever took 8th grade math, or have a Ti-82 calculator, you might be convinced to grow garlic by math alone. For every CLOVE of garlic, you can grow up to seven HEADS of garlic (each containing as many cloves). See that? What’s that like 49 cloves? How’s my math?

But things went a little awry. Thanks to a series of beautifully warm November days with global warming highs in the 70s my garlic was fooled into thinking spring had arrived.

Despite the heap of protective mulch over them, garlic scapes busted through, ready to party, not realizing a long winter is just minutes away. I’ve never been so disappointed to see healthy vegetable growth. When the ice cleared in the Spring, there were only three left, from the original ten I had planted, standing proud but conspicuous in otherwise empty pots.

Vintage photograph of garlic harvest.

Gelasio Laura Prosseda standing in front of an impressive garlic harvest. (Image from the Prosseda Family)

I kept watering them well into the summer, finally pulling them in late July. I stopped watering them a week before harvesting, letting the scapes go brown. Then I gently raised them with a trowel. I can’t tell you how proud I was of my three, weird, tiny heads of garlic.

I cured the precious heads in dry heat and shade under my grill and wound up using most of it in a hodgepodge, hurricane-induced culinary experiment involving sauteed onions, peppers and chicken sausage. It was delicious. Pungent. Spicy. And totally worth the effort.

Boxes of garlic scapes

If you want to be fancy, call garlic scapes, as shown above, as fleur d’ail. They’re just as delicious either way.

Here’s what to do:

• Get good planting stock: Get the kind of garlic that reproduces. Supermarket varieties are probably not the ones you want. You can find out where to get some good, local planting stock on the Garlic Seed Foundation, or take your chances with farmer’s market garlic.

• Planting in the ground is the conventional way, but pots will work too. If you’re a city dweller who wants to plant in the ground, have your soil tested first.

• Plant later in the season, and plant more of it than you want to eat; you might lose some to idiocy. (Ahem). In New York City, that’s less like October and more like late November. You don’t want the garlic to grow too much before the winter, just enough to get some roots going.

• Drop one clove into holes in the dirt 3-4 inches deep, pick the biggest, non-bruised cloves of the bunch. Give them some room too, 5 inches apart from each other.

• Mulching can help protect them from super cold temperatures.

• Continue to water into the colder months, the idea is that you want the roots to continue to grow before the frost hits, but… you don’t want them to sprout too early.

• Cut the scapes (the big green part above the ground) a few weeks before harvest in the summer. Impress your friends and throw them on a pizza. Cook with them like you’d cook with scallions.

• Gently raise the garlic with your hands or a trowel. Dust off the dirt and cure ‘em up by hanging them out of the sun in a breezy spot for about two weeks when it’s warm.

• Celebrate! You just grew garlic and damn, it tastes good.

Old cajun woman reaching for strings of garlic.

Cure some garlic heads like this old Cajun woman. (Image via Pop Art Machine)

Scott Moe blogs about gardening on his rooftop at Panthy’s Garden. Image research for this post was done by Gijs van der Most.

Saveur’s How to Peel Garlic in Less than 10 Seconds, YouTube.

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