Since It’s Better Late Than Never
This morning I told a friend I was preparing to plant garlic starts and his response was, “What is this, April Fools?” No indeed! Though garlic planted in autumn or late winter may fatten up more than spring planted sets (still dry and barely sprouting), leafy garlic starts have been growing all winter and will produce perfectly delicious bulbs if planted in spring. The key to keeping garlic plants’s minds on bulb building is not letting them bloom. Dis-budding your garlic plants will re-direct their energy into forming bigger bulbs, as will harvesting fresh garlic greens lightly. If you love to grill garlic scapes, harvest them before the flower sheaths open.
In fact, much of the garlic I planted in November did not have a happy winter, what with the crazy weather swings. Vigorous garlic starts will catch up with those battered winter-weary ones quickly, now that the soil is warming up. To keep garlic growing well, top dress the bed with a little compost and keep an eye out for weeds, as garlic can quickly be overwhelmed if crowded by lush spring growth. Cultivate with care, trying not to annoy the garlic feeder roots close to the soil surface; hand weeding is best as you can quickly re-cover any roots that accidentally get exposed when a wandering weed is yanked out.
Weed ‘Em And Feed ‘Em
In spring, garlic shoots really do seem to shoot out of the ground. To keep them happy, gently scratch in a little cottonseed meal and/or corn gluten blended with kelp and compost when the foliage starts growing well. If you prefer liquid fertilizers, try a blend of seaweed extract and high-nitrogen fish fertilizer. Feeding every other week will help build strong plants, and that will promote bigger bulbs. However, it’s important to back off once the bulbs start to form (usually early May), when high-nutrient fertilizers can distract garlic from bulbing.
That compost top dressing will provide slow, steady nourishment and help conserve soil moisture as well (who knows what our rain distribution will be this year? It’s already crazy dry for April!). Most years, it wouldn’t be necessary to water in spring, but these days, where soils are already drying out, a little watering is wise. Garlic needs moderate moisture when the greens are in rapid growth but rarely needs to be watered after that. Exceptions might be if soil is very sandy, and if we get sudden heat that causes foliage to flag even after the sun goes off the beds.
If you’re longing to harvest garlic scapes, watch for those flower buds to appear in May and June, especially on hard neck types such as the zingy Deerfield or spicy Dugansky. Picked young, before blossoms open, garlic scapes can be used much like asparagus. Steam them briefly, then drizzle with fruity olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Saute in butter and sprinkle with minced basil and pepper. Grill them and serve with a dollop of aioli or pesto. Slice them thinly on the diagonal and marinate in an herbal vinaigrette, or simply add those tasty slivers to salads, stir fries, or soups.
You can of course make pesto with garlic scapes, adding oil, nuts and cheese and grinding them into a smooth, luscious paste. Add basil if you like, or cilantro, or Italian parsley; all will be beyond wonderful tossed with hot angel hair pasta and a little coarsely grated pecorino or Romano. For a spunky twist on garlic bread, blend minced garlic scapes into creamy local butter, add a pinch of sea salt and fresh lemon zest, then spread thickly on fabulous bread and toast until crisp.
Beloved all around the world, garlic variations have been selected for thousands of years. When I was growing up in Massachusetts, garlic was something we only tasted when visiting the Little Italy neighborhood in nearby Boston. (Seasoning consisted largely of salt, pepper, butter and cream back then.) Ever since Julia Child set America’s imagination on fire with her artful French cooking, our palates have become increasingly sophisticated. As we changed the way we cook and think about food, the restaurant scene and the foodie scene exploded. As a result, today we can grow not just generic garlic but unusual kinds from all over the world.
Like what? Like brightly flavorful heritage Asian garlics such as zesty Munlung, milder Siberian, and creamy, almost sweet Russian Kishlyk. We can experiment with subtle Middle Eastern garlics such as Hadrut, a Porcelain type heritage hardneck from the Caucasus with especially large cloves, or zippy Shavat, a wild garlic collected in Northwest Tajikistan. When we want our entrees to sizzle, we might turn to spicy-hot UK types such as Kilarny Red, Basque country Donostia Red, or smooth, velvety Spanish Ajo Rojo. South and Central America boast many specialty garlics, from Peruvian Cuzco, rich and lively, to delicate Argentinian Dario. North American offers heritage garlics such as saucy Creole and new introductions like the fiery Silverskin Mount Saint Helens. Rarest of all is Navistar, a seed-grown garlic. (Almost all commercial garlic is propagated clove by clove, since seed can be notoriously difficult to germinate and doesn’t necessarily run true to type.) Can’t choose? Try some of each!