Garlic loves the cold…

IMAG0372And we love garlic. (A lot. Especially the juicy and flavorful bulbs you get if you grow it yourself. Home-grown garlic is infinitely more delicious than the dessicated and dull cloves you so often buy in the supermarket.)

The secret to a good garlic harvest is to make sure it is exposed to chilly weather. Unlike tender summer crops, garlic requires a period of cold to prompt the individual cloves you plant to grow into chunky heads of multiple segments.

Last October I pushed cloves into newly raked soil in a raised bed. Most of these have grown slowly, steadily through the winter and now are pleasingly established plants, awaiting the warmer months to bulk up for harvest in July.

Garlic sown last October

Autumn-sown garlic enjoys the winter sun.

A few cloves didn’t germinate, however, for some unknown reason. They remain in the soil, looking just as they did when I planted them. Are they in suspended animation or are they dead? I didn’t wait to find out – I bought some more garlic!

“Cristo” is a French variety that can be planted in the autumn or spring. A week ago, during a fleeting bit of sun, I ripped the papery husks off the heads, broke them in pieces, and submerged the cloves in new rows near the ones I had sown months ago.

Not only am I hedging my bets, hoping for a good harvest, but I now have an experiment in progress. What will be the difference between autumn-sown and spring-sown garlic? Will one be more prolific, more fat and juicy? Will they mature at the same time? I’m looking forward to finding out. I just hope the results are more spectacular than last year, when the heads were disappointing, made up of miniscule cloves, more trouble to peel than they were worth!

One of my allotment goals for this year is to master the art of successional sowing – the discipline of sowing seeds little and often, ensuring that you have a steady supply of vegetables ready to pick rather than lurching from famine to glut and back to famine. This methods works well with many crops, especially quick growing ones such as salad greens, herbs, and radish. Let see if it works with garlic.

Rhubarb rising

IMAG0485Crimson knobs emerge. Then pale, crinkled leaves slowly unfurl. Cherry-red stalks begin to elongate. The rhubarb is on the march!

Last year I divided the one clump we had (acquired originally as a give-away left on a street corner) into three or four sections, discarding the dead fibrous center. I feed each with a nice helping of manure and, reinvigorated, the plants responded with a burst of growth. Rhubarb loves nutrient-rich soil, the richer the better. It’s no surprise that the new plant that has come on the most is the one planted next to the compost heap.

This year I may employ an upturned, black plastic garbage can to plunge one of these rhubarb clusters into artificial darkness. Deprived of light, the stalks will grow tall (seeking the sun) but remain rosily pink and tender. The leaves, unable to photosynthesize, will remain pale yellow and wrinkled. In this manner, I will produce “forced rhubarb” – a delicacy prized in the late winter months. After this early harvest, the bucket is taken off and the plant suffers no lasting effects, though it must not be forced again for several years.

Have you ever eaten poached rhubarb (roasted in the oven with a scattering of vanilla sugar and some freshly squeezed orange juice)? Sweet and tender and stunningly ruby-red.

Before the majority of spring bulbs are in bloom, rhubarb offers the vegetable gardener a vibrant, colorful display that heralds spring.

Before the majority of spring bulbs are in bloom, rhubarb offers the vegetable gardener a vibrant, colorful display that heralds spring.

Winter Respite

Last week, from a train window, I gazed at snow coating the fields, reflecting cold light back onto a grey, February sky. A classic winter scene. When I arrived in Oxford, the snow was nowhere to be found, though the air remained frosty and the impressive college architecture seemed to echo a seasonally-approriate chilly solemnity.

IMAG0471

The highlight of this quick day trip was certainly the opportunity to meet and catch up with sister-in-law Kate! A wonderful, and all-too-brief, treat.

Afterwards, I wandered down High Street to find the University’s Botanic Garden. Many plants in the outdoor beds were still sleeping, but harbingers of spring provided elegant splashes of color.

Snowdrops

Snowdrops

A distinctly unseasonal treat awaited me inside the glass houses where warm, moist air enveloped leafy fronds of jungle foliage –

IMAG0478Where crops were ready to harvest –

Cotton plant

Cotton plant

And ripe fruit (in season?) tempted the passerby.

IMAG0476In the next room, dry heat (equally exotic) bathed cacti and aloes of all shapes and sizes –

IMAG0474I thoroughly enjoyed the brief encounter with exotic climes – just a short train journey away. Now back to ordering and chitting potatoes and pruning fruit bushes. Spring is coming!