I’m writing to report a failure.
Every fall I plant garlic. For the past 6 years it has been a ritual that marks the season. A garlic is planted by plucking a clove from the larger head and placing it in the soil, rough butt in the earth and pointy nose towards the sky. I plant mine 6 inches apart, each clove below a small hole in the drip line where life giving intravenous fluids flow, and two inches deep. This last fall I planted about 70 cloves. I keep a garden journal with dates of plantings, harvesting, weather events and mutterings about my garden. This journal also helps me check my memory, “now when do I plant garlic?” As I flip through the dirty pages I see in 2008 I planted garlic in “early October,” 2009 “early November,” 2010 I made no note, 2011 “September 29th” and in 2012 my journal reads “October 10th-ish– planted garlic.”
Garlic is something I tell every new gardener to plant. My pontification goes something like “oh, grow garlic. It is super easy. It needs very little care and it will be something green and cheerful to look at all winter.”
After it is planted in fall it shoots up several sturdy inches and then hovers at that height all winter. I mulch my garlic bed with a heavy comforter of leaves to protect the bulbs from freezing. After the drip line freezes I stick the hose under the leaf blanket, every few weeks, to quench their thirst. I can hear the thankful gulping but I’m mindful not to water too much. Under the leaves the environment is positively swampy and if it gets too wet the bulbs will rot — a sure sign is a sloughy, moldy, grey colored overcoat on the clove.
Come spring, I can tell the weather has changed when the garlic starts to grow faster and taller and greener. Sometime in late April, or early May, each plant sends up one snake-like arrow from its center. This wily being is the scape- the “flower stalk” of the garlic, although they will never produce a real flower. To me scapes are the equivalent of flags festooned with daffodils and bunnies hanging on mid-western houses. Scapes mean spring. In order to remind the plant to keep putting its energy into the growing garlic bulb, not the showy flag of the flower stalk, you have to cut the scape off. Scapes also remind me to stop watering the plant, the head is ready. After I stop watering the plant I leave it in the ground for a week, or two, and then harvest them. By then the scapes are long gone, into the greedy stomachs of my family.
Scapes have the earthy flavor of garlic but with only a mellow hint of spiciness. The are like a pearl wearing cousin of a peasant farmer- related, but more refined. I pick them when they are 4-6 inches long, chop them and put them in scrambled eggs, stir-fries, sautés, and tomato sauce. Most years I have 70 scapes arriving over a few weeks. They make it into at least two meals a day. After they are gone our mouths, tongues and noses are perfumed with their scent.
I look forward to scapes all year.
This winter my garlic just did not look right. Instead of the usual cheerful green stalks, they looked tired. The winter beat the plants up, the stalks of the plants were slender and weak. I pulled the comforter of leaves up around them and treated them like patients in the consumption ward- extra nourishment, lots of fussing, promises that fresh air will help. I thought spring warmth might invigorate them, but instead the strong winds left every one of the garlic laid down flat- tips towards the sunset, bulbs buried east. I watered, I cooed, I wracked my brain. Harvesting garlic in June is a delight I wait for all year. I could hardly imagine my gardening year without the ritual of braiding garlic on the back porch with my husband.
Yesterday I could bear it no more. I faced the facts. The situation was not going to turn around. It was not going to be a typical year. Most of the plants stalks had grown brown and snapped off. There was exactly one sad yellowing scape. The bed looked funereal. I got out the pitch fork and harvested 35 premature baby heads of garlic, exactly half of what I had planted. The rest are lost in the soil, too small to find without the beacon of their stalk. As I dropped each head in into a cavernous metal bucket, I thanked each one for making it through the torment.
I don’t know what went wrong. While rocking my daughter to sleep my mind would drift out to the garlic bed, dive under the mulch and root around for the cause. Too little water? Too much wind at just the wrong time? Tired soil? There was a few weeks when the drip system was inadvertently turned off… but none of it was definitive. Finally I stooped looking for the answer. Things can go wrong in the garden, as in life. The longer I garden the more I realize how much I will be humbled by failure. It’s part of why gardening is so good for my soul.
My journal has a new entry:
“June 5th- 35 garlic and 1 scape harvested. Unknown catastrophe. Will try again in fall.”
2013- harvest day. Garlic laid flat, where they have been for a month
What the garlic usually looks like in April
2011- scapes and chamomile
2012- harvest, June
2012- right out of the ground
2012- all cleaned up
Beauties from 2009
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