For most edible plants, we are approaching Rip 'em Out and Clean 'em Up time. The tomatoes are shriveling up into a withered brown, the beans are turning out a last gasp crop, the squash are slowly curing their harvest on the vine.
But for garlic, it's almost planting time.
Garlic is one of the few plants—like flower bulbs—that likes to spend the winter in the ground. It likes to go in around mid-October, during a week when the ground is relatively dry. For a month or so, while the sun's still bright, it puts out roots and gets settled—then the cold arrives, and it settles in for dormancy, a nap.
The cool thing about garlic is that it's planted in cloves, not seeds, which means you can pull this year's harvest out of the ground and replant part of it to make next year's crop. Each head gets broken into cloves, each clove gets peeled (peeling the cloves protects them from any fungal spores that might have been hanging out on their skin—some people go so far as to wash them with baking soda and hot water, or even alcohol), and each clove goes top-side up into the ground.
As for where to plant, you want to look for a spot with nice, rich humus, no weeds, and a little layer of leaf litter or pine needles on top. The cloves like to be spaced about 5 inches apart in a row and 9 inches apart between rows, and once they're covered over and patted in, they need a good watering to get a head start. After that, there isn't much to be done—simply wait, and watch. Around June, if they're hardnecks (which is a good idea, since these hardy varieties tend to do better in cold climates than the softneck ones), they should start sending up flower heads. You'll want to cut those off, to ensure that the plant sends its energy into the bulb, rather than the flowers. Around mid-July, when the stalks start to dry out and wither, it's harvest time. You loosen the soil around the bulb, pull it up, dust it off, and hang it up upside-down in a dark, airy, cool place like a barn or a shed to dry.
There are all sorts of varieties that do well on the Cape, but so far as I can tell, there are two main kinds. Almost everyone I've talked to who grows garlic grows these two: Russian Red, and German White. A lot of people have been growing their own for so long they can't say for sure whether it's really the same strain or not, but most of them started with one of these two. So if you decide you're up for it, I'd look for a few heads of those varieties at the farmers' market.
A friend planted a row for us last year, while we were away on our honeymoon in November. It was a little late, but they did wonderfully, and we pulled them up in August. She can't remember what kind they were, but today, I took the stalks down from the kitchen rafters. I dug a little bed outside, and soon enough it will be planting time.
Roasted garlic is one of my favorite things. I first tasted it at the Wicked Oyster—they give it to you with olive oil alongside the bread basket—and I've been making it at home ever since. It might be simple, but in my opinion, it's one of the tastiest spreads there is.
several full heads of garlic
bread, for serving
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Brush any dirt off the garlic and cut the tops off of the heads. They should look like this:
Place the garlic face up either on a baking sheet lined with tinfoil or in a casserole dish with a lid. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt to taste. Wrap the tinfoil around the garlic heads or cover the casserole dish and put the garlic in the oven. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the garlic cloves are soft and fragrant. Enjoy with bread, or, if you're feeling adventurous, try the cloves in this garlic and herb dip or this garlic and anchovy dip or, my favorite, this garlic and white bean hummus.