Hamptons Epicure: How Not to Grow Garlic on the East End

Many readers have asked how my garden is coming along this season. Last year I often wrote about my very first kitchen garden and its ups and downs. This year, number two, is quite different. The garden that I continue to share with my neighbor has expanded and it’s still a wonder, and ultimately rewarding, but new frustrations abound. Sometimes, just like Linda Carter used to call out “O mighty Isis!” in order to turn into Wonder Woman, I cry out, “Oh Barbara Kingsolver, advise me, tell me what to do!” Don’t worry, I only say it in my head…and I don’t often get an answer.

Kingsolver is less than a generation older than I am but, woman, does she have it together! She moved her family from a desert fantasy of a life in Arizona—sustained by massive shipping of fresh water—to a working farm in Virginia where she taught domesticated turkeys how to breed. Amazing. But what she really deserves a MacArthur genius grant for is her canning. She does this thing where she makes up a huge pot of ingredients for barbeque relish, takes a portion of that out and cans it, adds peaches and keeps the rest cooking to produce sweet and sour sauce, takes some of that out and cans it, then adds raisins and nuts and continues until she has chutney to can. If you’ve never canned you may not grasp the brilliance of this innovation—trust me, it’s revolutionary.

(For the record: I saw Travesties at Bay Street last week, so I know from “revolutionary.” I have never turned into Wonder Woman. Not even close.)

I think I’ve done a little “solving” of my own (I’m no “kingsolver,” I’m not even a “queensolver,” maybe I’m a “rooksolver,” or a “saltsolver”…) in that I have all the ingredients for salsa and for tomato sauce growing in my garden—tomatoes, peppers, onions, cilantro for the salsa plus basil and rosemary for the sauce. I have all the bay leaves I’ll ever need already. Anna Pump’s Loaves and Fishes Cookbook tells me to throw out all my herbs after six months. That book is generally “words to live by,” but I happen to like the mellowing effect of age on some herbs and spices. I have a bottle of marjoram that belonged to my husband’s grandmother. As my son pointed out when he was visiting recently (i.e. messing up our kitchen), “It always tastes like dust anyway.” This is probably why the marjoram has lasted so long.

I particularly like to age cinnamon—I prefer it that way, maybe because all of my formative childhood cinnamon experiences were based on old cinnamon. Anyway, have you noticed what quintessential ingredient is missing from my garden? Garlic.

I love garlic. Can’t get enough of it. I planned to get over to the Cauliflower Association last fall and buy a farmer’s quantity of garlic bulbs. I’m not sure what that quantity would be—a gallon? A hectare? Whatever, I wanted “a big,” but I never quite got my butt to Riverhead before the Cauliflower Association closes at 5 p.m. My crazy schedule and complete failure to take lunch breaks meant that I was outta luck to be the possessor of a bulk bag of bulbs…or was I?

One day in November I came home to find a paper bag on my stoop that contained an orange plastic perforated bag of garlic bulbs. The plastic bag had been opened and the contents partially used, but there were dozens of bulbs left. Hallelujah! A gardening miracle.

Who left this wonderful bag of bounty? The most likely candidate would be my neighbor, though she’s more into flowers. I might have our “View from the Garden” columnist Jeanelle Myers to thank—she plants a lot of organic vegetable gardens for her clients and she could have leftover bulbs at the end of the year. Maybe it was the local farmers I volunteer with every week—but I don’t know why they’d have leftovers. I didn’t overthink it—I just rejoiced and…failed to get my dream bulbs into the ground! Spring came and they were still in that same bag, in my foyer. I don’t know much about growing garlic except that garlic is best planted around Halloween. I figured if I put the bulbs in the ground in the spring I’d at least get garlic chives (the leaves) from them—maybe garlic scapes (the flower stalks).

So I got them in the ground in April. Falling six months after October, April is its opposite. The bulbs didn’t do anything for a week, that’s normal for many seeds. Then they ALL SPROUTED! They grew, though not large, resembling small daffodil plants. As the spring’s rains and sunny days proceeded apace my small garlics grew until one day…one blossomed! It was…a daffodil. Hmmm, I guess you get what you pay for. Last week I bought some organic hardneck garlic at the Sag Harbor Farmers Market for $3 a head. Now that’s local.

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