Growing Garlic

IMG-1513Last week the crew brought the last of the garlic into the barn’s loft to cure. I always breathe a little easier once that job is done and the season’s harvest is safe, out of the ground and under cover. An important step, but only one in the year-long cycle of growing garlic.

The next step, once all the garlic has cured for a couple of weeks, is to trim the stalks and the roots and gently clean the heads. Then, we grade the heads, looking for damage or disease and sorting them by size. At this point we set aside the garlic we will be using for seed in the fall, choosing the largest heads with the greatest number of cloves. This way, we bring forward the best genetics in our garlic stock as well as adapting it to our farm’s particular climate. With the garlic cleaned and sorted, and the seed garlic set aside, the rest is distributed to the CSA shares or sold at market.

In this climate, we plant garlic sometime between the middle and end of October. I’ve planted later, into the second week of November, and have been fine but knew I was flirting with disaster. Running up to the planting day, we spend a little time in the loft “popping” the heads, gently breaking breaking apart the heads into individual cloves. These cloves are what we plant out, the “seeds” of the garlic. They are planted just like you would crocus bulbs, pointy end up, blunt side down, and about two inches deep. Once planted, we topdress the beds with the chicken litter from last winter’s coop and then deeply mulch it with six to eight inches of straw to protect it through the winter.

And then we wait.

The following spring, once the ground thaws and the days warm, I begin checking the garlic beds. Usually by mid-April I will see the little green fingers of new growth thrusting through the straw mulch. Throughout the rest of the spring and early summer, the garlic grows in the lengthening days. Sometime around mid-June we harvest the scapes, the flowering part of the plant. And then we watch for the plant to begin to die back. Once this process starts, we know the garlic has grown as large as it’s going to, and we begin the harvest. Sometimes, when the ground is soft, the garlic comes right out with a gentle pull. Sometimes the ground is harder and we need to deploy the digging forks. In either case, we work as gently as we can so as not to bruise the heads. And then the whole harvest is spread out in the loft to cure, and the cycle begins anew.

War Against Weeds

Right now, we’re staging an all-out assault on the weeds. When the crew and I are not harvesting, we’re weeding. For extra help, I’m calling in favors, offering blandishments, extending veiled threats. Like a general, I’m reviewing my tactics and deciding where to apply my resources to the best advantage: Where is the insurgency most serious? Which assets are most important? Where is the battle already lost? And where can it yet be won?

I know I need to be careful when using martial imagery when describing my work on the farm. As I’ve written elsewhere, my relationship to this place is more of a dance than a fight. But in this case, I think, the analogy rings true. These weeds, by robbing the crops of light, moisture, and soil fertility, do threaten the harvest. How numerous they are outstrips my resources to fight them all. So victory here depends on determination and thoughtful tactics.

And the clock is ticking. On the one hand, if these crops are going to have time to bear a good harvest before the end of the season, they need to get free of the weeds now. And on the other hand, as the harvest ramps up, we have less time for everything else, weeding included. So, this week, we fight on.