There are certain plants that I’m convinced evolved just to boost our gardening self-esteem. Plants that are so low maintenance yet enthusiastically robust that merely thinking about them will produce a bumper crop.
Horseradish. Mint. Feverfew.
And now, I want to add two more to that list: garlic and shallots
If you at all like flavor in your food, and you like to plant things that are the vegetable equivalent of a cheerleader, then do try your hand at these two crops. They could not be easier.
Here’s what you do:
1. Pour over seed catalogs, drooling at the descriptions of these amazing and aromatic bulbs. From Territorial’s offerings– “White skinned with just a blush of pink, this garlic makes big cloves that are easy-to-peel. The taste is a medium hot, true garlic flavor that lasts for a long time” or “Purple outer wrappers protect the violet-tinged cloves that burst with a fiery flavor and mellow out with a pleasant aftertaste”. Shut up and take my money.
2. Somehow manage to make your selections. I don’t remember what I picked last year, but I do know that since we’re working towards our Certified Naturally Grown designation, I shelled out for the organic bulbs. You don’t have to, though! These things are going to sit in your soil for some 8 months, so you have a long time to control what goes into the crop.
3. Plant your cloves. A garlic bulb contains a number of cloves, and when planted, each clove will turn into a whole head of garlic. Shallot bulbs contain two cloves, and each clove will produce a clump of bulbs, usually between 4-6 of them. If you live somewhere that has hard frosts/a real winter, you want to plant your garlic and shallots in mid-October. The internet says to plant 6-8 weeks before your first hard frost, so your actual mileage may vary. In our 4×8 raised beds, we squeezed in 20 garlic cloves and 16 shallots.
4. Mulch your planting. We put a thick layer of old straw from the goats’ enclosure over our plantings. You can use leaves, grass clippings, or shredded cardboard over yours. Some places will warn you not to do this until winter has actually hit, lest you invite rodents who will find a warm shelter AND tasty garlic/shallot bulbs to munch on, but we ignored this and were just fine. But we also live on 10 acres with lots of overwintering spots for rodents, so you know.
5. Wait. Ride out winter. In the spring, when danger of hard frosts is passed, remove your mulch. You may see green shoots already, you may not. We had the weirdest, most horriblest spring in New England this year, and got hit with killing frosts several times after we removed our mulch, and the garlic and shallots were still totally ok.
6. Wait some more. Around June, you’re going to notice these wild curly stem things coming from your garlic. They’re called scapes, and if left alone, they’ll become the flower of each plant. But don’t leave them alone. Nope. Cut them off for two reasons: 1. so the plant sends its energy down to the bulb, rather than to the flowers and 2. so you can eat the scapes. Scapes taste like- wait for it- garlic! and they’re really good made into pesto or chopped up and put in omelettes or soups or whatever. Shallots don’t waste time sending out scapes, so you don’t have to worry about them
7. Watch the greens. By the end of June/beginning of July, you’ll start to notice changes in the green stems your plants have put out. The garlic is going to start getting all brown and withered at the tips. The shallots are going to totally fall over in such a dramatic fashion you may be tempted to blame a child or chicken for getting into the bed and stomping around. But don’t worry- it just means it’s time to harvest!
8. Harvest! Take hold of a clump of greens down near the base and give it a good solid pull. The garlic bulb/clump of shallots will come up. Carefully brush the bigger dirt clumps off, taking care not to knock the bulb around so hard you bruise it.
9. Cure! Garlic and shallots need to be cured before you can eat them. Curing means to let them dry for a week or so in a well ventilated, warm place. We use the barn. You can use a garage or something. Don’t use your basement, though, unless you have a magical basement that isn’t dampish. To cure, leave the greens and the roots on. They’ll help direct energy back to the bulb and moderate moisture transfer.
10. Pay yourself back first. At this point, it’s horribly tempting to stick all your garlic cloves into a pan, drizzle a good olive oil on them, and roast them for an hour, finally squeezing the roasted cloves straight onto crusty bread and gorging yourself. Or snatching up all your shallots to make the Pioneer Woman’s cheddar puffs. But resist! First set aside your biggest, most fragrant, perfect bulbs to use as seed stock for next year. I know. It’s hard. But trust me- come October, when you don’t have to go back and repeat steps 1 & 2, you’ll be happy you listened.
11. Store and enjoy. You can braid your garlic which is extra fancy and wins you points in the Martha Stewart Wannabe Contest.
Or put them in mesh onion bags. Or stick them in a paper bag. Whatever. They’ll keep for 6-8 months, which is a cruel twist of fate, since you won’t have more garlic or shallots for 12 months, but maybe those 6-4 months of store-bought bulbs are penance for….something?