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Garlic cloves shoved into a grid in the prepped bed

Garlic cloves shoved into a grid in the prepped bed

Two days ago, I planted half of the hardneck garlic I intend to put in this year. I had chosen a bed that hadn’t held any last season and yanked out the desiccated tomato plants (we picked our last green ones, which are turning red on the porch as I write, about five days ago) and the defunct peppers. Loosened the soil with a fork, weeded what needed to be weeded and planted the cloves that I’d chosen from among the largest bulbs I’d grown this past year.

Since I first learned about hardneck garlic from Colchester CSA manager and grower, Theresa Mycek, probably ten years ago, and started planting it in my own garden, I’ve come to depend on it. Hardneck garlic is terrific because it’s delicious, beautiful (those tall green tops with the curlicue scapes are such a nice visual counterpoint to the clumpy greens and beans), and like a culinary Double-mint gum: it’s two, two, two garlics in one.

The first one is the scape.

Scapes before clipping off arrowhead tip

Scapes before clipping off arrowhead tip

Wait; let me back up a little. First, sometime in late-October through November, you sit outside on a nice autumn day, separate garlic bulbs into cloves and plant the cloves about 8 inches apart – I plant in a grid, others do it in rows – in a prepared bed. Tuck them in gently beneath straw or some other light but effective mulch. In spring when the earth wakes up, the green shoots start coming through the mulch. In about May, you notice that the shoots have grown rather tall – knee high at least. In maybe mid-June, when the tall stiff shoots have continued to grow and are now curled around themselves a bit (i.e. turned into true scapes), you clip or break them off – it’s kinda like asparagus; you snap them where they are happy to be snapped – bring them in and cook them any one of a number of ways. We sometimes tempura them, or grill them for a great snack/ hors d’oeuvre/side dish, chop them into omelets, sauté them with other veggies, quick-pickle them in the fridge in a vinegar-and-herb-and-peppercorn bath or hang them by the kitchen door to ward off vampires. Whatever.

Hardneck bulbs - notice the central hard neck

Hardneck bulbs – notice the central hard neck

 

Siberian, Russian Giant, Music and Keith's Garlic cloves

Siberian, Russian Giant, Music and Keith’s Garlic cloves

In July-ish, when the green tops have browned and died back sufficiently, you dig – or pull, depending on how soft the bed is – the now cloved-up bulbs, wipe off the earth, and hang them up to dry. (I clump them in bunches of about 6-8 bulbs and hang them on the back porch). Then you use them. They go into the spaghetti sauce I can during tomato-and-pepper harvest, into chicken cacciatore (which is ONLY truly delicious when made in season with fresh garlic, fresh basil and fresh parsley plucked only a few minutes before chopping into the red-wine-soaked braising liquid), into the oven to spread on homemade bread with good olive oil, into salad dressings, well, you get the idea. But if you’ve planned right and the fates have shined on you and your little bed of hardneck garlic, you will also have enough to save, separate into cloves and plant to continue the whole cycle. The miracle of gardening and life perpetuating itself.

This year, I prepped one bed, but the second bed I wanted to plant was a knotted thicket of wire grass, wild aster, which has determined root systems, and the bind weed just to put a topping on it all. My husband volunteered to dig it all for me, bless him, so this afternoon I’m going to sit outside with the dog, separate six more garlic bulbs into cloves and plant that bed.

garlic-in-misty-garden

Scapes beginning in late April-May

When I’m in prayer position on my knees stuffing the cloves – or anything for that matter – into the ground, I think about a little garden plaque a friend gave me years ago that said: Who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits to see believes in God. It’s an acknowledgement that while we can become really good gardeners, we are all at the mercy of so many other elements in life beyond our own control. But I have faith. And I keep on planting.

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Unknown     When I first heard of grafted tomato plants, I thought: Grafting? Of annuals? Really? Grafting woody perennials, yes. The time, attention and effort required to produce a successful graft rewards us with years of fruit (trees) and/or beauty (think: roses). But all that work for the tender stems of tomato plants that only last a season? Yet grafted tomatoes, watermelon, cucumber, eggplant, and peppers are catching on worldwide — and for good reason.

Grafting joins two plants of the same species but different varieties to create one plant. It’s designed to be a marriage of strengths – usually disease resistant roots (stock) wedded to a top cutting (scion) of a less disease-resistant but more appealing variety, for example vigorous Maxifort tomato root stock joined to the scion of luscious heirloom Tangerine tomatoes.

The process of grafting annual vegetable plants is theoretically simple. Take a plant with a strong rootstock, slice off its green top at an angle then slice through the stem of the desired top-growth plant (scion) cutting off its roots. Mate the sliced ends of the two plants and clip them together until the slice heals.

Grafting Tomato plants

Grafting Tomato plants

“The plant can begin to draw nutrients within 10 seconds,” says Peter Zuck, vegetable product manager at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, ME, which sells grafted plants, “but the after care of the newly joined seedling is critical.”

As soon as the graft is made, plants must be kept at just the right temperature (70-74F) and humidity (80%-90%) and remain in low light to prevent top growth while the graft heals completely.

“Some people incorrectly think of it as similar to genetic engineering,” says John Bagnasco, managing partner at SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables in Vista, CA, “but it’s not at all.”

Unknown-2Grafting has been a horticultural practice for centuries. The Bible mentions grafting olive trees in the book of Romans. The Chinese grafted the strong roots of wild tree peonies to their favorite cultivated stems in the 9th century.* But grafted annual vegetables and fruits are a relatively recent addition to the horticultural pantheon.

“The Japanese began grafting them about thirty years ago,” says Bagnasco, who notes that Japan struggles with depleted, disease-prone, and challenging soils. “They have to graft to get

them to grow.”

Additionally, the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, which outlawed methol bromide used to control soil-borne fungal, bacterial and viral diseases, prompted an upsurge in the use of grafted annuals among its 197 signers, who needed an effective alternative to the pesticide.

Cut the stems of root stock and graft at exactly the same angle

Cut the stems of root stock and graft at exactly the same angle

“Almost 100% of the watermelons grown in Mexico are grafted now,” says Zuck.

In 2011, it was estimated that 1 billion grafted fruiting annuals were sold worldwide. In 2015, the number was 1.5 billion.

“Most were watermelon plants and most were sold in China,” says Bragnasco.

In addition to disease-resistance, the grafted plants tend to stand up to the kinds of climatic and regional stressors — soil salinity, temperature extremes, short seasons, and lower light — that can doom a vegetable garden, especially that succulent emblem of summer: tomatoes.

“Tomatoes don’t care for the broiling hot weather we have in summers around here,” says John Campbell of Annapolis, MD. Campbell has been growing grafted tomatoes in his home garden for ten years. “If the weather stays above 90 degrees for more than five days, they slow up on production. What I have found is that the grafted tomatoes suffer through this rotten summer weather with no problems, and I have not had any problems with disease.”

Tomato graft held in place with a graft clip

Tomato graft held in place with a graft clip

In addition to withstanding stressors, grafted vegetable plants can produce well despite less than optimal light. Most vegetables require six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day to fruit well.

“I had a small lot in Belfast [ME] with mature trees,” says Zuck. The tomatoes got about five hours of direct sun coupled with dappled sunlight and shade the rest of the day. “I found that the grafted plants helped me overcome that. They were much bigger and more productive than the non-grafted plants.”

“The plants produce anywhere from twice to three times the fruit, and they are exceedingly hardy,” says Campbell.

Another advantage for the home gardener with limited space is that grafting bypasses the need to rotate crops, a common practice used to avoid recurring soil-borne problems. Although grafted vegetable plants are obviously more expensive than non-grafted, for many home gardeners it’s worth it.

 

* An Illustrated History of Gardening, by Anthony Huxley, Lyons Press, 1978.

 

 

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Garlic bed planted on 24 November

Garlic bed planted on 24 November

It’s a little late for garlic, planting-wise, but I’m looking at the garden and thinking I may still have a little time to shove in a few more cloves before we reach what is predicted to be a cold January and February. Since I first learned about hardneck garlic from Colchester CSA manager and grower, Theresa Mycek probably nine years ago, and started planting it in my own garden, I’ve come to depend on it. Hardneck garlic is terrific because it’s delicious, beautiful in the garden (those tall green tops with the curlicue scapes are such a nice visual counterpoint to the clumpy greens and beans), and like a culinary Double-mint gum: it’s two, two, two garlics in one.

The first one is the scape.

Wait; let me back up a little. First, sometime in late-October through November, you sit outside on a nice autumn day, separate garlic bulbs into cloves and plant the cloves about 8 inches apart – I plant in a grid, others do it in rows. Tuck them in gently beneath straw or some other light but effective mulch. In spring when the earth wakes up, the green shoots start coming through the mulch. In about May, you notice that the shoots have ground rather tall – knee high at least. In maybe mid-June, when the tall  stiff central shoots have continued to grow and are now curled around themselves a bit (i.e. turned into true scapes), you clip or break them off – it’s kinda like asparagus; you snap them where they are happy to be snapped – bring them in and cook them any one of a number of ways. We sometimes tempura them, or grill them for a great snack/ hors d’oeuvre/side dish, chop them into omelets, sauté them with other veggies, quick-pickle them in the fridge in a vinegar-and-herb-and-peppercorn bath or hang them by the kitchen door to ward off vampires. Whatever.

In July-ish, when the green tops have browned and died back sufficiently, you dig – or pull, depending on how soft the bed is – the now cloved-up bulbs, wipe off the earth, and hang them up to dry.  (I clump them in bunches of about 6-8 bulbs and hang them from the back porch). Then you use them.  They go into the spaghetti sauce I can during tomato-and-pepper harvest, into chicken cacciatore (which is ONLY truly delicious when made in season with fresh garlic, fresh basil and fresh parsley plucked only a few minutes before chopping wads into the red-wine-soaked braising liquid), into the oven to roast and then spread on homemade bread with good olive oil, into salad dressings, well, you get the idea.  But if you’ve planned right and the fates have shined on you and your little bed of hardneck garlic, you will also have enough to save, separate into cloves and plant to continue the whole cycle. (The miracle of gardening with its wonderful reminder that life works to perpetuate itself).

Chesnok Red hardneck garlic cloves ready to plant

Chesnok Red hardneck garlic cloves ready to plant

This year, my husband prepped a couple of beds in early November one lovely autumn afternoon while I sat outside, separated the bulbs I had grown and saved for next year’s harvest along with the bulbs I bought from Colchester CSA. (My last summer’s harvest was smaller than I had anticipated. I had more of them rot this past year than usual and so had to buy in seed stock). As I was in prayer position on my knees stuffing the cloves into the ground, I thought about a little garden plaque a friend gave me years ago that said: Who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits to see believes in God. whatever your spiritual convictions, that statement is an acknowledgement that while we can become really good gardeners, we are all at the mercy of so many other elements in life beyond our own control. But I have faith. And I keep on planting.

Scapes before clipping off arrowhead tip

Scapes before clipping off arrowhead tip

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9781591865414When I was a kid, I had a terrific book called The Make-It Book, which detailed a bunch of creative projects, both rainy day and non-, for kids of all ages that kept me and my brother happily engaged for years. The Square Foot Gardening Answer Book reminded me a bit of that book. Simply (but not simplistically) written, encouraging, with clear drawings and straightforward instructions, it is a soup-to-nuts guide for anyone interested in creating a small, productive and easy-to-maintain garden in a host of spaces. Square foot gardening (SFG) is great for the new gardener who wants to start smart and keep going happily, but is also good for the time and space-crunched, who want to savor the pleasures and satisfactions of gardening without making the kind of commitment row upon row of veggies can require.

A square foot garden as the name suggests, is constructed in a grid so it’s a space-miser. The planting takes a page out of Nature by mixing plants – for example, cabbage with nasturtiums (which help deter cabbage moths and add peppery spice and color to salads), lettuce with root crops like beets, carrots and turnips, tomatoes and peppers with basil, cilantro and parsley – an approach that is not only beautiful to look at and productive, but helps to cut down on problems with pests and disease.

RooftopGarden_B&WSquare foot gardening first came to prominence in the ‘70’s when many back-to-the-landers, most of whom grew up in the burbs and knew nothing about growing something to eat, decided to become self-sustaining. Tilling, planting and cultivating rows of vegetables turned out to require more space and labor than these new mini-farmers had anticipated, which is one thing that made square foot gardening so appealing. It shares the interplanting principle with the French intensive method, which at the time was also gaining adherents for its big production in a relatively small space. But SFG was simpler and far less backbreaking than the double-digging usually suggested in French intensive gardening.

The SFG Answer Book is straightforwardly laid out and combines answers to the questions author Mel Bartholomew has been fielding since publishing his first book on SFG in 1981. It offers practical advice for planning, constructing and maintaining your own square foot garden, regardless of where you live. Chapters include Planning and Locating Your Square Foot Garden, Building Your SFG Boxes, Planting and Harvesting, Working with Mel’s Mix (the growing medium aka soil), Dealing with Pests and Problems, and Making a Difference with SFG.  (Bartholomew created the Square Foot Gardening Foundation, a nonprofit that spreads the message of SFG through humanitarian projects throughout the world in an effort to end world hunger.).ANSFG 3 1019_HR_B&W

This book is for anyone who wants to start gardening, whether it’s food, annuals, perennials or a combination or all of the above. It’s also a perfect way to start gardening with kids, or to start kids gardening on their own if they prefer to do it completely themselves since the project is manageable in small bites, but is completely scalable if they want to ramp up, or maybe have their own square foot space beside that of a parent, friend or gardening mentor.  SFG Answer Book addresses the problems of limited space, offers potential solutions for less than optimal sun exposure and is very much focused on health for both plants and people.

Square Foot Gardening Answer Book by Mel Bartholomew (Cool Springs Press, $16.99).

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Garlic cloves shoved into a grid in the prepped bed

Siberian, Russian Giant, Music and Keith’s Garlic cloves

The past three days were gorgeous, like a return to spring, so my mind naturally returned to the garden — which I  confess I had left pretty much to its own devices the past several weeks.  I had planned to plant hardneck garlic this year as usual, but had left it kinda late. Came the hurricane, and chill weather, and a feeling that I had missed the horticultural boat. Then Gary, spurred on by the brief Indian summer, foolishly sweetly asked what he could do to help. Over morning coffee, I gave him the chore of prepping two small beds, figuring he would forget it during a day of brushing goose blinds. Wrong. He went out immediately with a garden fork, looking a little like a man marching into battle, and not only weeded and dug and fluffed the beds, he also spread two loads of compost over them, which meant I really had to follow through that day instead of sitting in a garden chair with a beer and book and a blissful expression on my face enjoying the last balmy days of the year.  So I did. Get up off my duff, that is.

Garlic is the Rodney Dangerfield of the larder. It gets no respect. Even sophisticated cooks settle for those aging white knobs in the supermarket, most of which come all the way from China, which is the world’s largest garlic producer last time I checked.  But most of us settle because we haven’t experienced the locally grown difference. I hadn’t until a few years ago when I tasted Music hardneck garlic, a large-cloved Italian variety with a sweet pungent flavor named for Al Music who brought it to Canada in the 1980’s. Compared to the store-bought stuff I’d been using for years, it made me feel as though I’d been cooking with oven mitts over my taste buds. Crisp and juicy, it brightened everything  – aioli, pesto, chicken cacciatore, pepper hummus, Moroccan beef, and 10-minute pasta. (Throw together in a bowl: torn brie cheese, chopped fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and mashed garlic. Add salt, pepper and a splash of olive oil. Cook linguine then dump the hot drained pasta over the raw sauce and mix. Supper’s ready. Don’t forget the red wine.).

Softeneck garlic varieties grow a bulb that’s a clustered clump of cloves, while hardneck garlic has five to seven cloves in a single ring around a hard center stem. Hardneck types also produce a late spring scape, an elegant edible green curly-cue at the top of the stem, so hardneck’s a kind of two-fer culinarly-speaking. Softneck garlic, which has no center stem (hence no scape) usually stores better and some say they’re easier to grow, but hardnecks, which store up to six months in a cool, dry place, have better flavor in my estimation.

Music Garlic waiting to be broken apart at last year’s CSA planting

Planting garlic is simple. (And once you’ve grown it, you can save some and plant your own for next year’s crop.). Each planted clove produces a new bulb. It needs well-drained soil and will rot (as mine did one year) if you plant it in too-wet ground without enough steady sun to dry it sufficiently, or if you mulch it too heavily and leave heavy sodden mulch on during a damp spring. Having said all that, it’s actually easy to grow.

The two beds Gary prepped are both new to garlic in our garden and are fairly well-drained so we have high hopes. Break the bulbs apart into cloves, being sure to leave the plate (the flat foot of each clove) intact; it’s where the coming season’s roots will emerge. Push each clove down into loamy earth on a dry day (like yesterday — it was lovely, warm breeze, sunshine, gorgeously prepped bed I could get my fingers into easily) about 6-8 inches apart. I plant mine in a grid and will mulch them lightly with fresh straw once I get hold of some in the next few days.  

Planting garlic at Colchester Farm CSA 2011

 

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