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Friday, March 08, 2002

Elephant garlic

The long rains are back, with the occasional snowflake.

In March we do most of our gardening sitting around the table playing with pretty packets as if there were a game called Seed Poker. To Beloved a pair of Sugar Snap Peas and and pair of Broccoli is a really good hand; but I prefer a full house of two Blue Lake Pole Beans and three Candy Corns.

One wants something to do, even if it calls for a full suit of rain gear and gum boots. So at about this time of year I usually do the garlic roundup.

The previous occupant of our place enjoyed garlic, which I never liked, but luckily his choice was elephant garlic, which has made me a convert. This stuff grows six feet tall, produces interesting flowers that are fun to have around and also great scissored off for salads, and develops a bulb the size of a softball, with great, soft cloves that are a cook's delight. These can be diced and tossed into the pan with whatever's doing, from stir-fried vegetables to roast lamb, adding a much subtler and pleasanter aroma and flavor than the smaller, more common varieties.

When you lift the plants, though, there are a myriad of filbert-shaped bulblets, like small potatoes, that get left behind in the soil, sometimes eight or ten inches deep. These become first-year plants of what appears to be a biennial. Because of the depth from which they often grow, the bulblet plants make a fair substitute for leeks, which I'd love to try but don't feel I'd have the time to devote to them. Or if you leave them alone, they come back the second year as the highly productive six-foot beasties.

The garlic bed that was in place upon our arrival was an unfortunate business constructed of old boards full of termites, and overrun with blackberries. We decided the location was better for an orchard, and harvested all the garlic, keeping a few of the large cloves for use in the Summer Garden the next year.

But in March I discovered about a hundred small plants where some fifteen had been before, on the old bed site, coming up through the new grass. Well, I can't stand to see anything wasted, so out came the fork and a bucket with about five inches of water in it, and I gingerly lifted out the long white stems, with their narrow bulbs and strands of succulent white rootlets, till the bucket was quite full. I then took an ash pole, sharpened at the end, which had been part of a bean trellis, and dibbled the little darlings into the new garden.

None of them died.

Nor did they amount to much that first year, and I almost forgot they were there, in amongst the tomatoes and pumpkins.

But the second year they were a forest of long, lithe stems and purple blossoms, as apt to draw the eye from a distance as any sunflower.

We soon were giving away cloves at a great rate. We bagged them up and handed them out almost as a kind of volunteer cottage industry, working feverishly through our birthday and holiday lists. The supply was inexhaustible. Heaps of them lay about in bowls on the kitchen counter.

Meanwhile March came around again, and I went out to the new orchard (dwarf: two Santa Rosa plums, two prune plums, two Asian pears, two Fuji apples, a Bing and a Royal Anne, cherries) and -- gasp! -- one hundred more baby garlics, crying out to be lifted. I suppose I could go into garlic farming, but one thing tells me this would be a futile endeavor: along the road, all the way into town, there are signs: Elephant Garlic For Sale. From this I suspect we have here the rain country's equivalent of -- yep, you guessed it -- zucchini!

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