Garlic Time

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Photo: Jennifer Hambrick

It is telling, the events we watch for each year in order to keep ourselves from falling off the calendar.

For some, Halloween means it’s autumn, Christmas means winter’s here, and the start of baseball season means summer has arrived.

When I started growing garlic, I discovered a whole new way of keeping track of the cycles of the seasons, a whole new way of telling time. I call it Garlic Time, and each year it tells me something about itself – and about me.

We started growing garlic several years ago when a friend showed us the garlic harvest from her own garden. Before that point, we had never considered growing garlic. But we immediately went for the idea of adding garlic to our garden and being able each year to make quite possibly the freshest, loveliest marinara sauce on the planet.

Around that time, and quite by coincidence (though really, I don’t believe in coincidences), an acquaintance offered me a bulb of heirloom garlic from her garden to plant for the following year’s crop. I took her up on it. My life has never been the same.

It was late summer when I picked up that first bulb of heirloom garlic. Garlic likes to grow during the winter, when the earth is cold and mounded with snow but wrapped by the generous glow of the sun. Our friend had told us to plant the garlic cloves around late October. And it was a challenge not to rip through the garlic bulb’s pearly white wrapping paper and pluck off a couple of cloves for sauce and bruschetta with that year’s tomato harvest, for pesto with that year’s basil. We placed the garlic bulb in a spot on our kitchen counter reserved specially for it. And waited.

There, in that spot, the garlic was Zen in action, or, rather, non-action. Each day the garlic rested on the counter, and I picked it up, felt the rounded contours of the outer cloves with my fingertips, watched the light beam through the sheer, creamy paper. I’d hold the garlic bulb in my palm, envisioning the chilly October day when I could tear through the paper like a kid at Christmas, separate the cloves, and nestle each one, pointy end up, in its own little burrow of cool earth. Then I’d put the garlic clove back in its spot on the counter and bide my time.

Eventually Halloween rolled around, and the next day I went out, garlic and digger in hand, to our garden plot. My work was methodical: dig a hole, plant a clove, cover the clove with earth. I marked the locations the planted cloves by placing a mid-size stone right in front of each covered hole.

Then I went back inside. And waited.

We waited through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. We waited through the dead of winter. We waited through Ash Wednesday and the umbrous gravity of Lent as the garlic’s green slips ascended from their hollows. Then Easter came, along with the flowering of daffodils, and the garlic slips stood ever taller. The hostas curled up from the earth and tulip season came and went, and we waited. Memorial Day, the last day of school, the Fourth of July – still, we waited.

Then one mid-July day, the green garlic slips fell over onto their sides, just as my friend had told us they would.

Finally, it was time.

I dug a dozen new garlic bulbs out of the earth and took them inside, giddy with the bounty. I washed the bulbs, lay them on a cooling rack to dry, and imagined next year’s harvest with enough garlic to hang in pendulous braids all around the kitchen.

Then I did the math and realized that, for my dream to come true, we would need to plant – not eat – every delicious clove of the garlic I had just harvested. And, ideally, then some.

In other words, we would need to wait some more.

Garlic Time is about waiting. It is about knowing when the time is right, and only then doing what needs to be done. Garlic is individualistic; it lives on its own schedule. It doesn’t grow with the tomatoes and zucchini and other stuff of summer gardens. It waits until the earth goes to sleep, then wraps up, hermit-like, in its cool, dark cave. When the earth is warming and the summer plants are just getting started, the garlic is coming of age, in its own time.

I’ve come to love living on Garlic Time. The middle of the summer is marked not by the Fourth of July, but by the slanting of the garlic slips and the harvesting of the crop. Fall arrives not when the leaves change colors, but when we plant the garlic cloves for next year’s crop. Winter’s here when we find ourselves looking out the window for green slips poking through the snow. And spring has come when we finally see them.

All of this works on its own schedule, different from the rest of the world, and will not be rushed. This, too, is the wisdom of Garlic Time.

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