how to grow garlic, part two

(It’s been a little quiet here at Radical Farmwives.  Robin is out of state and Cher is having internet interruptions, not to mention the fullness of the growing season upon us.  I’m taking the opportunity to follow up from last Fall’s post, How to Grow Garlic, Part One.  And I hope we will all be back to our regular schedule soon!)

It happens as summer begins it’s full glory, usually around the time of our neighbor’s amazing, long standing traditional Solstice Party.  Things get fiery – it must be time to harvest the garlic.  solstice

We watched it all winter.  The sprouts emerged and gained a little height before the deep cold set in, and then they sat there.  And we waited.

In Spring, if you mulched well, there’s not much to do with a garlic bed except harvest scapes.  If you’re into that sort of thing, you could do some aerial fertilizing with compost tea or the like.

this was back in April. nice.

this was back in April. nice.

And watch for weeds.  A biologically active soil eats mulch.  So, as the soil warms and comes to life, the mulch will thin, the sun may be able to reach the soil, and seeds will sprout.  It’s in the best interest of the garlic grower to keep the weeds at bay.

This year, we had a lot of galinsoga in the garlic patch, as well as some pernicious poke weed.  Galinsoga goes from seedling to full blown flowering adult in about 3 days, but at least it’s easy to pull.  We did what we could do between rains and other work, but the patch still looked a mess by the time we got up the hill to pull the garlic.  It’s painful to be honest about that – but I’m doing it anyway.garlic patch

There have been years, when our soil was particularly soft and the mulch just right, that we could pull the hardneck garlic varieties by hand with a gentle tug.  Softneck varieties don’t hold up so well to that treatment.  For the most part we use a digging fork or a trowel.  This year, we also engaged the helping hands of a nine and a four year old, to help rub the soil out of the roots of each bulb as it emerged.  They were proud to get dirty for the good cause, and they slept well that night (but not on the garlic wagon).garlic patch 2

Ideally, we want to see a couple of decent looking leaves still standing on the stalk when the garlic is harvested.  Each leaf is an extension of one of the sheathes around the bulb underground.  Keeping those wrapping layers intact is important to the storage life, and beauty, of the bulb.

Good handling is also important.  We handle our bulbs with care – never tossing them onto the ground, into the wagon, or into baskets.  They can bruise, and then, they can rot.

Once all the bulbs are out of the ground, with the dirt rubbed out of their roots, they need to cure and be stored.  Like many a small homestead, our storage facilities are lacking.  It’s intensely humid in our hollow and we do not have any climate controlled space, at all.  Ideally, we would be curing garlic in a shady but not necessarily dark, cool but not really cold, location with low humidity.  Needless to say – that’s just not happening here.

We have learned that good air circulation and shade are our best bets for successfully curing the garlic.  Some experts claim that keeping the bulbs attached to the stalk, with the roots removed, is the best.  We cut off the roots, but we also cut the stalks on the hardnecks, just to make storage a little more smooth.  Softnecks can be braided, which is a beautiful way to store them.  It also makes for an enjoyable afternoon in the shade on a hot day.braided garlic 2

Whatever your storage capabilities – it is important to care for your garlic harvest in an expedient manner.  One year, our timing was poor.  It was raining and we left our garlic piled on the wagon under a tarp for a day or two while we took care of other things that seemed more important.  It was a horrible mistake.  When we peeled back the tarp, the garlic was a damp, dirty mess – really gross.  Not a total loss, but far from ideal.

It is a deeply satisfying process to see the garlic put up for the season.  We handle each bulb, trimming off the roots, feeling their bulbs for any damaged cloves, and separating out the largest and most perfect ones to plant again in the Fall.

Our garlic hangs in the rafters of our tractor shed.  It cures well enough there, where the sun never shines but the wind does blow, and will keep there for the heat of the summer.  As temperatures begin to really dive at the end of the growing season, we will bring it indoors and hang what remains of it upstairs, where it is slightly too warm (being better than slightly too cold) but at least the air is a little more dry.  Any bulbs showing signs of deterioration will be plucked from their bags or braids and used immediately.  Bulbs damaged in harvest, or deemed too small to share are also held separately and used up first thing.hanging garlic

All this said, you might like to know that you can just wing it too.  One local gardener recently told me that she grew garlic but only harvested when it suited her.  She just let it grow and multiply underground, digging out what she needed from time to time.  No curing, no storage, no sorting for seed.  Pure home gardening. (We love our garlic braids too much to go that route just yet.)

Garlic is an amazing plant.  As medicine, as food, as experience with the living world, it is well worth growing your own. braided garlic

(For more technical and cultural information about garlic, please see Growing Great Garlic by Ron L. Engelland.)

moving inward

IMG_5010Last week’s chilly, frozen mornings were my first real reminder of what the coming months have in store for my family: indoor time. Mostly, this is a good thing, after a bustling season spent out of doors embracing our farm’s natural surroundings. It will feel good to snuggle up for stories near the wood stove. Or to knit for long stretches through the dark evening hours, when there is really nothing that could be done, even if I wanted to, out there in the utter darkness. (Unless, of course, I just wanted to stare at the vast expanse of glittering stars gracing that darkness, which I often do on still winter evenings.) So, in an effort to make our house ready for all of the indoor action that is in our near future, I’ve found myself busily sorting, cleaning, and re-arranging our indoor world. In my opinion, there’s nothing quite as refreshing as a little make-over on the homefront.IMG_4995But it’s not just my family I need to make room for. Part of my inspiration for all of this cleaning is to make room for our food. Our butternut and acorn squashes were relocated from the airy barn loft to the protected indoor environment of our cabin. Now, there’s no space for lost toys under the children’s beds. That space is currently packed to the gills with squash! I’ve said before that we live in a small space. We don’t have a cavernous pantry that can receive and store all our garden’s bounty. (We dream of this, but haven’t made it happen yet… someday!) We’ve had to get pretty creative over the years to figure out where all of this goodness should find a happy home for the winter. It used to be, before so much of our cabin space was occupied by three little peeps, that our sweet potatoes came into the house for the winter, too. Fortunately, we’ve figured out a system of storing our sweet potatoes in our greenhouse, and this has been working pretty well for us. Thank goodness, as this year we harvested nearly three thousand pounds of our family’s staple. (We don’t eat quite that much, our CSA shareholders get to have some, too!) But, if we happen to have sustained cold weather this winter, as many locals around here are predicting, I imagine we’ll need to clear a space for them in the house as well. But that’s ok. Sweet potatoes, like the squashes, are pretty quiet roommates.IMG_4925What remains growing in the garden, for the most part, can handle the colder temperatures of winter. The greens that can’t handle the cold, well, we bring into the house and grow a different sort of garden… Our indoor garden consists of a big 10 gallon crock. This vessel is the mingling place where our last harvests from the gardens come together and mix their flavors and juices to become another family staple: kimchi. We made our first round for the season last week, and now are ready to jar it up and store it, leaving our crock ready for round number two. Our goal is roughly twenty gallons to see us through the darker days of winter. By springtime, when our palettes are tiring of fermented fare, here come the first wild greens salads! Ahhhh… seasons. Our kimchi making is a family affair: Ira chopping daikon, Eric shredding Chinese cabbage and carrots, Opal peeling garlic, and Livi acting as my food processor assistant while making the hot pepper/ginger/onion/garlic paste that we liberally add to our ferment. Part of the reason we started growing ginger in the first place was because it used to be the only ingredient (other than salt, we’re still working on that one) that we didn’t grow on the farm. We’ve made kimchi for so many years now that we just kind of roll with it. But when we were first experimenting all those years ago, Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation was our indispensable guide.IMG_4816IMG_4926IMG_4931IMG_4935As we move inward, and I clear space in the house for children and squashes and piles of coats and hats and jars of fermented vegetables, I realize that this movement is not just about shelter from the elements. We move inward to seek restoration. We move inward to find our inner light, our inspiration. We move inward for deep, dark, cozy sleep. And blessing of all blessings, the seasons allow us to move inward to avoid burnout… the farmer’s bane. So even though there is still work to do in the garden, even though our lists are still long and our days are still full, the intensity is lessening. It’s unavoidable when your life is driven by the seasons. So, in my work of tidying up the physical space that I occupy, I am also clearing space for the introspection that winter seems to herald. Like the deciduous forest that surrounds me, I need to bring my work deep down into my roots. To take a deep breath and restore my expended energy, rebuilding my reserves for the time when the daylight once again grows longer. For now, though, the days are relatively warm and filled with the beautiful color of autumn. There are a few garden tasks yet to be completed and lots of outdoor projects on the drawing board. I feel the pull, though. I know what is coming. And I look forward to it. IMG_5018

right now :: harvest

Rain threatened, and we headed to hill to get some big jobs done.

Big job number one: dig potatoes.raw potato row

The kids spent a lot of time in the shade, but when they pitched in, they were a big help.


You never know what’s going on with those underground crops.  The weeds were really out of hand, but the potatoes were just great.

We planted just over a bushel, and hauled fourteen bushels down the hill.  Best ever.

levon potatoes

I love days like this.