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Intrepid Urban Farmer: The Stinking Rose

Gardening is always a journey… a journey fraught with chance, discovery, disappointment, revelation, and ultimately, clarity. Nowhere is this more apt than my relationship with Garlic.
 
Quite a few years ago, some fellow gardeners (who had a little more experience under their belts) gave me a few “toes” of Garlic and a very rudimentary description of what I was to do with them. I did it. I went to the edge of my garden, dug a few holes and poked the cloves into the ground. It was late in the season and I had finished gardening for the year. This was the era before I had embraced raised beds. The soil was compacted, particularly more so, because it was on the edge of the back patio. Frankly, that dirt was rock hard. And, even more telling, I thought this would be perfectly fine.   
 
Next spring, I eagerly looked forward to my premiere crop of Garlic. I had a few wan, anemic-looking little shoots poking up to mark the site of my ignorance and poor judgment. I eagerly dug up the heads of Garlic. What I discovered was an assortment of the most pinched, impoverished, mean little heads of Garlic I had ever seen. And these are the ones that even made it. Pitiful. Embarrassing. Abusive, even!
 
Well, no one can say I don’t learn from experience... albeit a little slowly sometimes.
 
Fast forward a few years and few more increasingly successful Garlic crops.  
 
Now, it’s just about time to harvest the current crop. Last fall, right around the first frost, I planted what I will be digging out of the ground some time in the next couple of weeks. I never lose my excitement for this annual discovery. Each year I hope for larger, more robust heads. And it happens! Mostly. It has been a fruitful journey.
 
To plant a good crop of Garlic, first, start out with quality seed stock. You can order this from any reputable catalogue. There are two kinds: stiff neck and soft neck. I prefer the stiff neck varieties because you can enjoy an extra dividend— Scapes! Even though soft neck has the reputation of storing better, the Scapes are still worth it.  I’m getting ahead of myself; more on this later.
 
Make certain that your soil is properly amended with compost or rotted cow manure. Plant your garlic “toes”, the actual clove you are familiar cooking with, about two inches deep with the stem end down (You know when you have a head of Garlic a little past its prime and it starts to sprout? That is not the stem end).  I do this in a grid pattern with roughly six-inch spacing. The important thing here is that the soil you are planting in be light; fluffy, even. This creates a non-restrictive environment for the Garlic to expand as it grows. If ever there was a more ideal use for raised beds, I don’t know what it would be.  
 
When you have finished planting, cover the bed with a thick layer of straw. I stretch a section of wire fencing over the bed to keep out the critters (see “Zinnias, Raised Beds, Birds and Cats”). Then, all you have to do is wait for Summer.
 
In Spring, you will observe shoots coming out of the ground. Around the first of June, the main stem in each plant will pop up to form beautiful arcs and curls capped off by a small top set. Fibonacci and the Golden Ratio must be at work here! These are the Scapes referred to earlier. The name does not reflect the beauty of this phenomenon, in my opinion. And whoever came up with the nickname “Stinking Rose”, well, they obviously never witnessed this either… probably some miscreant vampire.
 
It is important to prune off these Scapes. By doing so, not only will you have a delicious culinary ingredient (pesto!), but you will also allow the growing energy of the plant to direct its all to the head of Garlic under ground.
 
Around the end of June, you will notice that the outside leaves of the stalks of Garlic will start to turn yellow. This is your signal that it is time, or almost time, to harvest.  Dig up a head and see what you think of it. You want the size to be big, and the papery cover over the head to be in good shape and not terrifically deteriorated. Do not wait for the outside leaves of the stalk to be overly yellowed. If left in the ground too long, the storage quality will be affected.
 
When you are satisfied with the maturity of the Garlic, go ahead and dig it up. Knock off the excess dirt and lay the stalks out on a screen or something similar that will allow good air circulation. Make sure it is in partial shade and don’t let it get rained on.This process is known as curing the Garlic and it will take a couple of weeks. When the Garlic heads have a somewhat dried, hardened exterior, you can either braid the tops and hang it, or cut the stalks and store them in a mesh bag or basket.  I put mine in a single layer in a basket covered with a towel and keep it in my basement. A cool, dry temperature, but not refrigeration, works best. I keep a thermometer in the basket to monitor temperature.   
 
Looking forward to next year’s crop, you will want to save your best Garlic heads for planting in the fall. The cycle of life, the cycle of Garlic. Keep up with this plan and you’ll never have to order Garlic again.  And, the best thing about this is that the longer a particular line of garlic is grown in an area, the more it will adapt to its environment. Customized Garlic!  The longer you do it, the better it gets!  More life lessons, but this time the journey has a better flavor.
 
 
The River City News is proud to produce this regular feature column, "The Intrepid Urban Farmer". Every couple weeks, our local expert will offer tips, stories, and more for the urban gardener. Questions for The Intrepid Urban Farmer? Email: [email protected]