…edna Bulgarska glava chesn. Or, ‘a year in pictures from planting to harvest – our sweet, saucy, tasty, organically-grown Bulgarian garlic.’
It struck me that in our world of hypermarkets, mass-production and sterile plasticification of food, many of us don’t have the foggiest idea where food grows, what it looks like in its raw state, whether it’s in season. One of the lovely things about Bulgaria is that a vege market is a genuine market: seasonal veg, mostly, bar a few imported bananas. Here we are relearning the seasons, the rhythm of life in the countryside, and what’s good when. Our childen rush in with delight at finding a freshly-blushed raspberry or a pregnant pea-pod.
So, I thought I’d share some pictures from this year’s garlic plaiting, tending, watering, weeding and harvesting.
Preparation begins in earnest in November, with all the ‘popping’ of planting garlic. Planting garlic is the same as eating garlic if you don’t buy sterile bleached lifeless bulbs from the supermarket. As garlic reproduces asexually, one clove is planted and magically becomes a whole head of garlic. That never ceases to amaze. So, when it’s time to plant, the bulbs are separated into individual cloves and sorted so only the best, plumpest, not-too-huge-not-too-tiny cloves are selected for planting.
This is a somewhat repetitive job, but gives lots of opportunity for sitting around in the garden basking in warm November sun while popping garlic and chatting. Last November’s work was helped magnificently by the presence of our lovely WWOOF volunteer Maggie, and dear friends Bron, Karl and Sammy the wonder dog.
This job is best done right at the last minute, as the separated cloves don’t keep very well. We have a mixture of hardneck and softneck garlic, and it’s all planted lovingly by hand. We filled up the garden and a small area in our field, covered and manured with well aged local manure from the neighbours (from their cows, that is).
After it’s all planted, the garlic beds are mulched with a thick layer of straw – this will help suppress the rampant weeds in spring, and also conserve moisture in the hot early summer.
Then, for garlic growers, a little respite as the garlic starts setting a few roots in early winter, but stays underground, not emerging until late february with the first green shoots. Lots of time, then, for finishing the last batches of pumpkin and garlic chutney, dehydrating sliced garlic and getting ready for snow.
As the new shoots of late winter/early spring push their way through the mulch, thoughts turn to pest management. In Bulgaria, garlic is prey to a certain little fly whose little offspring can eat its way through 40% of a crop in a few weeks. Bah! Instead of using horrid synthetic pesticides, we make up sprays with neem oil, sesame oil, cedar, marigold tea, and wander around giving organic love to our wee baby garlic plants.
During spring we (OK, Graeme) regularly feed the young garlic with wonderful organic brews made from nettles and dandelion, packed full of minerals and especially bio-available nitrogen, alternated with the organic neem love spray. Mmmm, mmmm. Dandelion and nettle compost tea, by the way, smells a lot like stinky drains, but is nevertheless ambrosia to the garlic (and no, the stink doesn’t last except if you spill it all down your clothes!)
In the last few weeks before harvest, there is lots of weeding to be done, especially around the edges of the mulch, where particularly persistent creepers try to tickle their way in. In the Rose Valley, we get some nice rain in May (that’s why it’s so great for the delicate perfume roses, and so brilliant for garlic, which is pretty thirsty). The thracians who populated this valley 2500 years ago were also particularly notable garlic growers, and we can see why. It’s more exciting than an exciting ballroom dancing game show final to watch the young bulbs of garlic swell in the final weeks.
We keep tabs on the garlic, digging up a few bulbs every few days, watching how the leaves are doing, feeding, watering, loving and weeding even more. If the garlic is dug up early it looks like a spring onion (in fact, the very first time we planted a few cloves in the garden, we were sure that we’d planted spring onions by mistake when we pulled some up too early.) A rather mildly garlicy spring onion. In Bulgaria, young green garlic is sold at the markets in small bunches and eaten as a delicacy, but we want to keep ours to grow to maturity.
This is what way-too-young garlic looks like – basically an elongated clove, so all the more wonder at how it magically splits into a whole family of cloves in a matter of weeks!
Milla and Amber are getting pretty good at garlic inspection duty, reckoning on the enlarging bulbs play-potential, but less keen on the eating-potential.
This year’s harvest draws near and we are a wee bit nervous. The barn is still roofless, and it looks like the tent will be the best option for drying garlic. After last year’s endless rain-in June-nightmare season, we want to make sure all our hand-reared babies are protected from wild rogue rainstorms when they are supposed to be sunbathing.
The ends of the tall leaves start to turn brown, and in mid June we start lifting the garden garlic.
If we don’t wait long enough, the garlic will be too small, but if we leave it too long, the bulbs will get too big and start to split. Thankfully, Grandma is here from NZ, so with lots of baba-time, we press on with harvest. The sun is out, the garlic is amazing, redolent of fragrant sweet allium-y summer scents, some showing violet hues, others sending up bobbly scapes, but all bitingly snappy, delicious, beautiful and glowing in the sun. We ooh and ahh over it