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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Though frost come or sun shine

Next year's elephant garlic peeking through the snow

[risa] For a couple of weeks now, when nothing else is happening, I have been moving garlic.

It's not really garlic, but elephant garlic, a closer relative of leeks, though if you have eaten a clove of it, anyone who catches a whiff of you will assume that garlic is what you've been eating.

But there's more to elephant garlic than the cloves.

As with garlic, if you harvest the stalk, the cloves will suffer as they will have lost their solar collector and can't store food properly. But the stuff is relatively prolific -- even invasive -- so, once you've got some, in the ordinary course of things you will soon have a lot, and perhaps you will then feel it's okay to experiment!

You may, for example, treat it as a leek.

We harvest cloves in late summer from some plants that we've allowed to mature, but we also harvest stalks -- or, rather, the sheaf of leaves that precede the extension of the central woody-fibered flower stalk -- in spring and early summer, and if you catch them young they slice up nicely and go well in stir fries and such. And we use the young sprouted bulbs in the winter as if they were shallots. Plants that have been matured to the flower stage -- which, again, doesn't do much for cloves -- also are encouraged here, as we're fond of the clusters of tiny purple flowers in bread, in soups, and on salads. Bees like them, too. And the flower stalks, which grow to be five feet tall, make perfectly good stakes around the garden.

There was elephant garlic in a small, decrepit and snaky raised bed when we got here, sixteen years ago. When we started the circular garden around front, I undertook to move all the available "shallots" -- in midwinter -- to form a border, by pulling away the termite-riddled boards of the old bed, forking up bulbs, moving the lot of them as one wheelbarrow load and planting one every twelve inches, round the fifty-foot diameter circle. Within a few years, the border was a two-foot thick wall of green, making inroads into the rhubarb patch and into the tomato patch, and what not. It was as if I had put in bamboo.

All well and good, as we do think it an important vegetable, but the cloves have suffered from overcrowding because we couldn't keep up with the harvesting. As the root systems were no longer in a bed with friable soil, but growing just outside the "real" garden, they were too hard to dig in summer, and in winter the mud simply cakes up one's digging fork unbelievably. In either case the work seemed to outstrip the benefits of digging for the stuff, and meanwhile the cloves got smaller and smaller.

We've redesigned the garden into a mini-farm of some nineteen long beds, right across where the circle garden stood for fifteen years. This means that now it is December, the green spears shooting up from this year's bulbs are appearing in curved rows right across our new paths.

These I am digging up, when the fit hits me, and re-distributing among the new beds, most of which are not yet fit to receive any other planting, but elephant garlic is hard to kill. You can lay out a plant right on top of the ground here, in the dead of winter, and it will root and right itself, though frost come or sun shine.

I pick a likely-looking clump, grown about six inches tall, and fork gently around it on four sides. Then I tip it up and rip the chunk, like a grass sod, loose from its surroundings, bring it over to the garden and play a stream of water over the clump until much of the clay is gone and the shining white bulbs, from marble size to golf-ball size, each with its shiny green spear, are easily separated. Placing them in a bucket, I move along the beds with a long stick, dibbling a hole down through the eight inches of straw and leaves to the soggy flattened corrugated board beneath, and punch through the cardboard. I seat the bulb in the hole in cardboard, draw the mulch up to the leaves, and pass on to the next spot. That's it.

Some four hundred bulbs have been relocated in this way; this sounds like a lot, but it has worked out to one plant every three to four feet on more or less a grid pattern. We hope to work around them ...

There's some risk that I'm creating a monster, I know; but it's what I do. We could talk about the Jerusalem artichokes ... meanwhile, there's food, with relatively little chance of crop failure. The elephant garlic seems to like being regarded as a companion plant; it cosies up to everything from pumpkins to parsnips, and its aroma seems to help confuse the bugs as they're hunting down the other veggies. You can use it in just about everything except maybe homemade ice cream. And as a last resort you can set up a table out by the road and give it away, as some other folks around here do with their zeppelins zucchinis.

I think, based on the amount of pathway I've cleared so far, that I'm about fifteen percent done with this task. But I've run out of room. Daughter took enough pity on me, at the end of her holiday visit with us, to take away one clump. I'm thinking I might take some to work with me next week, to set up on the "free" table in pots. What do ya think? Too .. risky?

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