Monday, October 22, 2012

Dear Gary,

Do you remember when you were my advisor in college and you suggested that I read A Garlic Testament by Stanley Crawford?  I already had an interest in farming, but I hadn't thought much about garlic before that semester.  Maybe you knew that reading Crawford's lyrical story would draw me into the wonder and mystery of this incredible vegetable and what it means to be bound up with the land as it ebbs and flows season after season.  This summer, eleven years after you introduced me to the world of garlic, I wrote a piece for Taproot magazine.  It wasn't accepted into the publication, but I wanted to share it here with you.

Garlic: July

It is July, time to harvest our very first crop of garlic.  As we pull up the heads covered in rich clay soil, I consider how long the cloves have been swelling under the earth.  Three seasons—nine months—have passed; and it truly feels like we belong to this land we now call home.

In the dwindling October light last year we dreamed of a garden.  As we turned over the soil and our little girls danced around us—delighting in a bucket full of freshly dug clay—my husband and I sunk garlic cloves into our first bed.  After we covered them up and the north wind arrived, what did the cloves do all winter, buried in the frozen earth?  I imagined them meditating.  As we settled into our new place, they did too: through snow and rain, thaw and melt, and more snow, they gathered wisdom from deep within.  Finally, enlightened after months of quiet, they emerged in March—the first garden plants to greet the spring sunshine.  I ran out with my camera in hand the day I spied a few tiny green shoots pushing up from the crusty, weather-beaten earth.  Our girls took their boots off outside for the first time in six months. 

Garlic Shoot: March

And then they grew, calling little attention to themselves, through April, May, and June.  They needed only a little weeding and then a little pruning after sending up their curly scapes.  When the lengthening summer days passed their zenith and the tips of the stalks began to dry out and yellow, our garlic plants waited patiently; their time had almost come.

Garlic: April

Garlic: May

And now my husband is gently easing the heads out of their bed and I am sitting in the warm dirt, cleaning them off, revealing the pearly white bulbs of pungent flesh.  It is quiet, and sort of knowing passes between us as we work.  October seems a long way off, but I know that he and I are both thinking about the season ahead.  At the moment, everything in our garden is bursting with foliage and fruit and we can hardly keep up with the bountiful summer veggies; but as we harvest this first crop of garlic our thoughts reach towards a slower time to come.  A time when some of the cloves that we hold in our hands will return to the earth to provide again for us—next year.

The Pile

The promise of a single garlic clove is modest by comparison within the vegetable kingdom.  In the space of a few months, most garden plants can produce hundreds of seeds to reproduce their kind.  A single clove of garlic (of the variety in our garden) grows into a head containing only 6 or so new cloves.  And yet, despite its modest rate of return, garlic feels like gold in my hands.  When I consider that the 76 cloves we planted last fall have perhaps yielded over 450 cloves this summer, now all piled up at my feet, I feel rich.


But in the midst of our riches, the question on my mind, and his, is this: how much of our long-awaited garlic crop should we save to plant this coming autumn?

I’ve already used three heads in batches of fresh pesto this week: our daughters can never get enough of that green, garlicky goodness.  And we hope to share a bunch with our generous neighbors.  I also have plans for making a big pot of veggie stock tomorrow, filled with the nourishing bulbs.  Then perhaps some fresh salsa the next day.  It’s tempting to take advantage of this garlic abundance all at once.  Summer in the north feels like that sometimes: quick, soak up some of that precious sunshine; use the last of the just-picked strawberries; and make sure to pick the tender lettuce before it bolts! 

But when autumn comes again, and our faces are no longer bronze from long days outside; our tummies are no longer full of ripe fruit; and our garden is no longer loaded with vegetables ready to pick for supper—what will we have stored up for the months ahead?  What will we carry with us—in our root cellars and in our hearts—as we retreat into fall?  And what will we give back to the earth so that it may bless us, and humble us, again with the promise of another year of abundance?

If we set aside 25 heads of garlic for planting, we won’t have nearly enough left to last us through the winter, but we will have about 150 cloves to sow in October.  And if all goes well (and grows well), we may then harvest over 900 cloves next summer.  Is this enough for our garlic loving family?  Indeed, is it ever enough, the bounty this earth provides for us as we clumsily learn the balancing act of taking and giving back; savoring, sharing, and planning for the seasons ahead?


I take one carefully polished head inside with me, to the kitchen.  He guides a string through the rest of the stalks and then hangs up the garlic to cure.  Later on we will look at the map we have made of our land: our modest and wonderful three acres of home.  We will consider where to plant garlic in the fall, how much earth we’ll need to turn over, and how many wheelbarrows-full of compost we have left.  But it isn’t really a mathematical equation, all this garlic.  As I unwrap the outer layers of a bulb and breathe in its delightful aroma, I give thanks for this gift, nine months in the making, from the wisdom of the soil to our bodies and our souls. 

*  *  *

Yesterday, three months after I wrote this piece, we planted our very own garlic—147 healthy cloves—with the help of our two eager little girls.  I thought of how I first fell in love with garlic all those years ago, and I gave thanks for another season of growing ahead.


Planting Garlic

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