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Four seasons of garlic: Now’s the time to plant, so you can eat all year long

Ari LeVaux
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Thick socks. Steaming soup. A warm spot by the heater. A crop of garlic in the ground. These are the stuff of wintertime cozy feelings.

Like having meat in the freezer, or jars of peaches in the pantry. Garlic in the ground equals food security, long before it pokes above the ground.

It’s fulfilling to kick back and simply know that you have done the work. Now it’s your garlic’s turn. In the ground, it’s biding its time patiently. In the kitchen, it’s warming you every day.

Planting garlic in the fall is part of the larger project of putting the garden to bed, and one of many winterization chores to complete before the cold blows in. Your first time, it may feel unusual to be digging and planting in the dirt among the autumn leaves.

But garlic growing is a four-season practice. During the late summer months after the garlic harvest, the garlic grower is still at work. I tarped my garlic patch in August. By November the soil turned over like soft butter. In spring you’re weeding, and then watering, and in summer you’re harvesting and tarping. In the fall you’re planting and tucking them in, and in winter you’re just waiting, and eating.

In addition to keeping me in close contact with the earth, planting garlic has also forged an unlikely reunion with my high-school algebra. I didn’t set out to derive an equation out of thin air. I was just trying to figure out how much garlic to plant.

My equation can do that for you, too, provided you have a sense of your daily garlic consumption, and you have chosen the garlic you wish to plant. Ideally you have the garlic in front of you, and can palpate the bulbs of a few heads and calculate a quick average number of cloves per bulb. Most quality varieties have between four and eight cloves per bulb. Any more than that and the cloves are too tiny.

X = Y ÷ (Z − 1)

We solve for X, the number of bulbs you should buy, where Y is the number of bulbs you wish to eat per year, and Z equals the average number of cloves per bulb.

I grow Romanian Red, which averages about five large cloves per bulb, so Z = 5. I go through a bulb a day, so Y = 365. Solving for X we get 91.25 bulbs of garlic, which I’ll break down into 456 cloves that I’ll plant, each one of which will grow into a bulb. I will eat about 365 of those, which leaves me 91 bulbs to plant next year.

The ideal window for planting is between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Too early and the cloves will start to grow too much, and risk being frozen out by winter. Too late and the ground will be frozen and you won’t get anything in.

Plant your cloves about six inches apart in soft, fluffy soil. The scab side, from which the roots will sprout, goes down, with an inch of dirt remaining between the upper tip of the garlic clove and the surface of the earth.

After it’s all planted and raked in, mulch the garlic with small deciduous leaves or straw (not hay, which has seeds). This layer will help insulate the dormant garlic through the winter, and regulate its temperature and moisture level when spring finally arrives. Leaves are probably superior because they will decompose, increasing the microbial activity on the soil surface, which improves fertility. But broad leaves like maple can form a mat that can be difficult for the young garlic sprouts to penetrate in spring, so you will need to pull them off in March so the garlic can make it up.

After planting, give it a good soak — or simply plant it before a soaking rain. The moisture will activate the cloves to start sending out roots, in preparation for the spring growth spurt.

But they don’t need to do much. The primary job of those cloves is to wait out the winter, hibernating, so they can go ballistic in spring. Not long after, you will be using your homegrown garlic in dishes like this.

Pasta with Garlic

Garlicking the pasta should be the first move in pretty much any proper pasta dish. For any Italian-style noodles you may want to toss in grated Parmesan cheese with the garlic.

• 1 pound pasta

• 2 cloves garlic, pressed or similarly macerated

• ¼ cup olive oil

• Optional: grated hard cheese like Parmesan

Boil the pasta and drain. Rinse the pasta briefly with hot water in the colander, to remove excess starch without cooling down the noodles.

Toss the hot noodles with garlic and olive oil and, if using, the grated cheese. Proceed with whatever sauce you had planned.