Bundles and braids of garlic are a pretty addition to a kitchen, either as part of a still-life on a counter, or hanging on a wall. Garlic is very easy to grow, even in the city, if you have a tiny piece of land or just a pot on a windowsill.
Garlic evolved as a survivor. Its ancestors thrived where other plants failed. Proof of that is in its leaves – long and thin, good for getting plenty of sunlight on a broad dry plain where nothing else grows. Put them in the company of other plants, however, and their thin leaves will be crowded out by others broad ones and they will not do well. During hard times – drought, for example, the garlic is programmed to go dormant – it will not use up its energy to produce cloves but instead will add bulk to its one clove and wait until the next year when hopefully conditions will be better. Garlic can go on for years this way, waiting for better conditions. Suffice it to say, garlic is worth a try for especially those who are not experienced gardeners. You can neglect it and it will survive.
But in order to have a crop that you can tie up into bundles and give out as gifts, you need to do a few things. Just remember that with gardening, it is not just black and white. The more energy you put into your garden, the better it will be, and the reverse is true as well. Put a little effort in, you will get a little bit of a harvest – and a little is better than none. Don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t turn the soil to 18 inches deep. You can only do what you have the energy to do. Some years I put a lot of energy into my garden and some years things get pretty wild.
In Oregon, we plant garlic in September or October. I have planted as late as December here in the Willamette Valley and I still have a fine crop the next July, but the earlier you plant in the fall, the stronger their root system becomes which gives them a great big head start in the spring, and you will end up with a bigger crop of bigger bulbs with bigger cloves. Choose a spot where the garlic will get lots of sun. Loosen up the soil as deep as you can with a hoe, remove weeds, and work in plenty of compost made of grass clippings and leaves (well-composted means it looks like loose, light, black dirt, and this takes at least a year, sometimes two), plus manure or organic fertilizer.
Get garlic cloves from a Farmers Market or a garden store. All of the garlic in my garden I received as gifts of homegrown garlic from friends, or from Farmers Markets. For a couple of seasons a few years ago I grew California Early, the type you get in the grocery store, until I realized it was a dumb idea. The reason to grow garlic is to get better than you can get in the store! As long as I am growing garlic, I will grow some really delicious kinds. A perennial favorite among tasters and testers is Inchelium Red. I just started growing it three years ago, and we love it for its taste, but as a cook I love it because it peels easily. Our other favorite is what I have been growing for the last 20 years whose name I never knew. It is a purple-skinned variety that keeps well.
To plant garlic: pull off the biggest cloves from the biggest bulbs; use the rest for cooking. Plant the big cloves root down, pointed side up, about an inch deep in the soil. Plant about 5 inches apart, and make rows about a hand-span apart. You can get a lot of garlic out of a small space.
Be sure the garlic gets water; weed it periodically so the weeds don’t overpower the garlic leaves. For a special treat, harvest a garlic while it is still green and use it in cooking. It has an unusual, fresh flavor.
Garlic harvest in the Willamette Valley is usually around July 4. The bulbs swell in the last four to six weeks before harvest, so if you harvest too early you may lose a large portion of the bulk. I wait until two-thirds of the tops fall down, and I also check the bulbs carefully by pulling one up every week or so and checking to see if the cloves are splitting out of the bulb. If it looks like it is, it is time to harvest. Be sure the soil is damp, then pull out the cloves. This can be done by hand although sometimes a shovel is helpful, especially if your dirt doesn’t have a lot of compost.
Some years I put my garlic in a wheelbarrow and wheel it to the lawn and fill it with water. Then I use a fingernail brush to scrub the dirt off each bulb and lay it in the grass to drain. Some years I just pull the garlic out of the ground and shake off the excess dirt. At any rate, once the bulbs are as clean as you can get them, lay them stem and all on layers of newspaper on the ground or a table in a place where there is plenty of circulation and no direct sunlight. Allow to dry for a week or two.
Select the best-looking bulbs for gifting, and use the misshapen ones for cooking. With scissors, trim off the garlic stems and the hairlike roots at the base. Choose three bulbs for a bundle and wrap string around the stems very tightly (the stems are still drying and shrinking), several times. Choose which side of the bundle will be the front, then tie off the string in a knot in the back. There should be plenty of string left to tie off again to create a loop for hanging.
With a separate piece of string or ribbon, add tags. Put them in a pretty basket and there is your garden harvest – and all your hard work – beautifully packaged and ready to give.
- Oval Hang Tags • I chose the “French Market” style in Chocolate.