Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Of Garlic and Other Winter Wonders

The garden is finished, or is it? Even in winter things can grow. In some ways it feels really good to put the garden to bed, covered with its blanket of leaves. Finally the work is done. Well, most of the work. The raspberries are covered in pine mulch. The big veggie garden is glowing with a new crop of winter rye – emerald green against the deadening brown surrounding it. The newest gardens are happily cooking their lasagna layers dreaming of spring.

But there is one garden that I am still busy with – the winter garden. This is where I plant my parsley, because some winters it makes it all the way through. My rosemary and thyme are there also because they have been known to stay green despite the cold. This little garden is tucked up near the house, hiding the lid to the septic tank. I always think of Erma Bombeck and involuntarily recite, “the grass is always greener over the septic tank” when I set to work in it. I do think the septic tank keeps the ground here warmer.

Originally I planted the garden as a flower garden to hide the septic tank lid, with a big whiskey barrel of zinnias placed on the lid itself. But flowers die and leave the septic lid and whiskey barrel exposed all winter looking ugly and obvious. So now it contains rosemary, thyme, and oregano spilling over the lid and a box of parsley that flourishes bright green for at least three seasons and on good years – four. The rest of the garden is devoted to the garlic, onions, and shallots – my winter crops.

Now is the time to plant if you’d like to grow your own fresh garlic! If you plant it now, it will be ready by early June. Garlic is easy to grow – just as simple as planting bulbs. All you need is a head of garlic. I like to experiment with heirloom varieties, but you can use any old head, even the one beginning to sprout in your cupboard right now. All you do is break off each clove and plant it pointy side up. You’ll want to plant it as deep as it is big, or a little deeper. I tend to err on the side of too deep when planting in the fall just in case the winter is worse than imagined. The garlic will be one of the first green things poking its leaves up through the ground as soon as spring hits. When the leaves begin to brown and fall over, it’s ready to harvest. Pull the garlic up, shake off the dirt (don’t wash it) and hang or braid it to dry. Fresh, home grown garlic is much stronger than the stuff you get at the store – you’ve been warned. I love garlic, can’t get enough of it, so the strength of homegrown garlic suits me just fine.

You can also plant shallots and spring onions now. Follow the same procedure as the garlic. The onions should be ready in time for Easter. As long at their leaves are green you can leave them be and let them get bigger. I pull them as I need them.

If you’re a smart and thrifty shopper, you’ll be checking the bargain bins right about now for the leftover bulbs. It’s not too late to plant flowering bulbs. I hate paying full price for bulbs – they’re only flowers after all. Plus, I don’t enjoy the tedium of planting bulbs. My kids quickly lose interest when they discover how difficult it is to plant anything in south central PA. We have incredibly hard and rocky soil around here and planting big bulbs was always a chore – until now! I splurged on the coolest gadget. Even my hubby, the tool guy, was impressed. It’s essentially a giant drill bit. Nick hooked it up to an 18 volt cordless DeWalt drill and I was powered to drill to China. It made quick work of the bulb planting task. My friend Lisa was here the first time I used it and the two of us were truly wowed. It doesn’t take much to impress women who love dirt. I planted 8 tulip bulbs in less than a minute. And I looked really cool doing it. Lisa took pictures. The noise and excitement attracted my youngest son and his buddy, eyes wide and adrenaline ready. They were eager to try it out, but after nearly breaking my own wrist, I think it’s a bit too powerful for a seven-year-old. The two of them are always looking for trouble, so I’m keeping my bulb planting drill hidden deep in the shop. Get one for yourself – you’ll be newly inspired to plant! I used it to break up the soil before transplanting some perennials this weekend and it worked great. I’m sure I’ll dream up plenty of reasons to justify the $21 price tag.

Plant a few more bulbs and a handful of garlic, and then put your garden to bed. Rest up. It’ll be time to start the seeds before you know it. The seed catalogs start arriving the day after Christmas. Nothing I love better than curling up on the couch near the woodstove pondering the possibilities of spring.

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