The Garlic Chronicles
IN EARLY JULY, WE HARVESTED our first mature garlic of the season. After months of tending the crop (mostly weeding and watering) it is immensely satisfying to shake the loose soil off the roots of thousands of robust, glistening bulbs and send them to market.
We’ve been growing the same variety of garlic for 27 years, saving a portion of each year’s harvest as seed for the next. Our cultivar—known generically as Rocambole, an heirloom, hardneck from Calabria, Italy—was given to us by a neighbor. We started out with a couple of dozen bulbs; now we’re up to 80,000. We’ve officially named our strain Keith’s Calabrian Rose.
From a grower’s point of view, garlic has several important attributes. It’s a resilient plant that humans have cultivated and prized for thousands of years.
It is largely resistant to common plant diseases and insect pests. Neither deer, nor woodchucks, nor rabbits, nor any other herbivore that shares the farm with us has yet to develop a taste for garlic. This means we don’t need to fence these critters out of the garlic fields, which saves us a lot of time and money. Last, but not least, when properly cured, garlic stores well and can be marketed well into the winter months.
Though we grow many other crops on our organic farm, garlic has priority status. It’s by far the most popular item at our stand and accounts for at least 25 percent of our gross revenue. Many New Yorkers come to us first for the garlic but end up buying an assortment of other vegetables and herbs.
In the past 15 or 20 years, many small New York farmers have started growing high-quality garlic for fresh market sale. In September, the Garlic Festival in Saugerties draws tens of thousands of garlic lovers each year. Gourmet garlic has become a hot crop in the Northeast.
Unlike most plants, garlic does not reproduce by seed or cross-pollination—its strategy relies on clonal division. Each individual clove is genetically the same as its mother bulb and, if planted, will grow a genetically similar bulb. Here’s a timeline of how garlic’s life cycle unfolds on our farm.
About 12,000 large, healthy bulbs are selected from the harvest and set aside as planting stock.
Planting stock bulbs are divided into cloves, which are then sorted by size. Each bulb yields an average of seven cloves.
Late October to mid-November
The cloves are pressed about 3 inches deep into rich, fertile soil in rows 18 inches apart. Within each row, cloves are spaced 3 to 5 inches apart, depending on their size (the bigger cloves get more space). Each clove must be oriented with its root end facing down—the reason human hands are needed in garlic production from start to finish. Within a couple of weeks after planting, the cloves will have sent out new roots, though the plants will not emerge above ground until the following spring.
November through January
The planted cloves are mulched with a 2-inch-thick layer of aged horse bedding (wood shavings, straw, hay and manure) donated by a local horse farm. This work is done with a tractor and manure spreader. The mulch serves multiple purposes: During the winter, it helps reduce frost heave and the possibility of dislodged cloves; later, in spring and early summer, the mulch helps retain soil moisture and suppress weeds. Eventually, the mulch will decompose and contribute valuable organic matter to the soil.
Late March to early April
As the snow melts and the ground begins to warm, the first shoots of a new generation of garlic poke through their blanket of mulch. It’s always a relief to see them—the plucky green spears tell us that spring is not far off and that we’re back in the garlic business.
April through June
As the days of spring lengthen, the plants develop true leaves and rapidly grow while eight or nine of us put in many days of weeding, mostly by hand, but sometimes with a tractor and cultivator. During this growth period, garlic needs plenty of water—at least the equivalent of an inch of rain a week. If nature is ungenerous (as was the case this past May), we use drip irrigation. In late May, we bring bunches of “green” (or “spring”) garlic to market, harvested from our smaller cloves. The scallion-like plant can be enjoyed in almost any meat or vegetable dish. For our customers, green garlic is a mild taste of what’s to come.
Mid- to late June
By this time, the garlic is two feet high. Scapes (garlic’s version of a flower stalk) appear in the center of each plant. We remove the scapes so the plants will direct more energy to forming bulbs—and because there’s high demand for scapes at our market stand. Like green garlic, scapes have become a popular seasonal treat. Most people chop them up and toss them into a stir-fry or vinaigrette; some make garlic scape pesto; others pickle and preserve them. A growing number of more adventurous souls have taken to munching on them raw.
As the scapes continue to develop, they undergo impressive contortions and we continue to harvest and sell them by the bunch. As they mature, their stems harden and they develop capsules (umbels) which contain little balls of garlic known as bulbils, another seasonal delight that seduces many chefs and gourmets. (Most of the garlic found in supermarkets is grown in China—not California, as many people think. It is “softneck” garlic that, unlike our “hardneck” garlic, does not develop scapes. Serious garlic eaters consider the Chinese product—and softneck garlic in general—to be inferior in flavor.)
Early to mid-July
By now about a third of the leaves of each plant (there are usually a total of 11) are no longer engaged in photosynthesis and have turned a brownish yellow—a sign that it’s time for us to harvest the real thing and bring our first full-size garlic to market.
Mid- to late July
We hand-pull or hand-dig the remainder of our crop. (The entire harvest with the tops still on can weigh as much as 10 tons.) Plants not destined for immediate sale are hung in a barn and open sheds to dry. Large fans keep the air moving. This curing process, which can take up to two months depending on humidity levels, ensures the bulbs will have a long storage life. Once the crop is cured we remove the tops, leaving a few inches of stem on each bulb. The bulbs are stored in sacks or in open crates in a cool (but not freezing), dry place. Stored correctly, they can remain good for nine months.