Our Garlic Family Tree
This week we harvested all of our garlic for the year. There are different types of garlic: elephant garlic (which is more closely related to leeks), softneck garlic, and hardneck garlic. We grow hardneck garlic which is more closely related to wild garlic, has more complex flavors than softneck, and adapts better to colder climates. Some even compare hardneck garlic to wine because of the subtle differences that reflect regional soil and weather patterns.
Our specific variety is Music. It is slightly spicy with incredible aroma and flavor described as mildly to medium hot with a musky, rich taste. It has a high content of allicin which researchers say is a powerful antioxidant.
And, believe it or not, our garlic is sentimental to us as we know a few generations of its family tree. We got it from Rebecca Claypool, a fellow farmer and friend from Yellow Barn Farm. At the same time that we started vegetable farming in earnest, Rebecca decided on a different career path. So we bought her garlic. Because it was close, and because it was beautiful, and because there was lots of it. But at the time we didn’t realize its history.
On a cold and dark November evening a few years ago I stood on Rebecca’s porch to collect a big box of seed garlic. I was anxious to get home after a long day at my office job with my mind already thinking about the supper I would make while Bill and the kids filled me in on the events of their day. Rebecca opened the door, took my check, and handed me the garlic. As I thanked her and turned to hurry away, she asked if I realized she had originally gotten it from no-longer-operating Greenspirit, my good friend Jennifer Moore-Kerr’s farm. It was there because it had been a parting gift from the managers of Prairie Crossing, the farm in Illinois where the Greenspirit owners interned. Coincidently, Bill and I worked for Greenspirit for a year during which Jennifer and we got to know each other. My thoughts turned away from hurrying home, and I focused. It was a little thing, certainly, but for that moment everything felt right and perfect.
Of course this strain of garlic was handed off to us to nurture in the tradition of Greenspirit, the farm that was instrumental in giving Bill and me a path to continue our farming life. We’ll always be indebted to Greenspirit not least of all for the knowledge, experience, supplies, and equipment shared with us, but also because of the friendship fostered there.
Hardneck garlic needs to go through a cold period to trigger sprouting, so cloves are planted three to four weeks before the ground freezes. This timing assures that the roots have time to develop before the tops break the surface which could cause them to freeze. About mid-November we “crack” the pre-selected seed garlic bulbs by breaking them open and separating the cloves from the basal plate from which the roots grew. Each clove will result in a garlic bulb when harvested the next summer.
Cloves are planted pointed side up two inches deep in beds 100 feet long and 30 inches wide. In each bed cloves are placed eight inches apart in three rows. After planting, the beds are covered in four-inch thick mulch to protect the future crop from winter kill caused by repeated freeze/thaw cycles.
The mulch is pulled back from the beds in the spring, allowing the ground to warm up, stimulating the cloves to sprout. A few weeks later we rake the mulch back over the beds to conserve moisture, moderate soil temperatures, and inhibit weeds.
Garlic is a crop that just keeps giving. In the spring before the bulbs size up, we dig green garlic. A few weeks later we pull the long curly scapes to encourage the plant to concentrate its energy toward growing its bulb. And because they are delicious to eat. Then, a month or so later, the main crop is ready to dig up and cure. We lay the garlic out to dry in front of a large barn fan in our shed. When it's fully cured three weeks later, we cut the stalks off and store the bulbs in mesh bags to be enjoyed through the winter.
Tuesday we dug approximately 1800 bulbs of garlic -- from Prairie Crossing to Greenspirit to Yellow Barn to us at My Fine Homestead -- to put in CSA boxes, sell at market, eat ourselves, and of course, to save for seed garlic to continue the torch for another year.
Sometimes everything feels right and perfect.