Onions and garlic are the basis for nearly all of my cooking, whether it’s Asian, Italian, or generic “American.” From pasta sauces to curry, they are endlessly useful. Despite that, they’re surprisingly hard to find at the farmers’ market. I suspect that people aren’t willing to pay enough to support the farmers because these particular vegetables are so cheap at the grocery store. Because of my love for and versatility of these ingredients, I’ve tried to grow them for the past few years. Even though other people told me it was simple, until now, I’ve had limited success.
Garlic and onions are some of the few vegetables that overwinter well, surviving even hearty frosts. If you plant garlic in the springtime – as I did the first time I tried to grow it – it actually grows much less than if you plant it in the fall. In areas like mine that have sporadic hard frosts in the winter, the garlic will sprout during warmer times and carry through the colder ones. In areas that have consistent frosts, the plants will go dormant in the fall and then sprout in the spring, growing quickly in the cool weather. In contrast, planting them in the spring doesn’t give them enough time to grow before the hot weather hits, which abruptly slows down their output. In fact, spring-planted garlic may never form bulbs in warmer locations because the plants need to be exposed to one to two months of temperatures between 32 and 50 degrees to even start forming bulbs. I found out the truth of this when I dug up my spring-planted garlic last year. Even though it seemed ready to harvest after a whole summer of growing, it barely produced more than the single bulb I had planted. So this past fall, after I laid down my layers of leaves, newspapers, and LeafGro, I planted garlic. Ideally, I would have used a local variety from the farmers market, but I ended up grabbing grocery store ones from the counter and sticking them in the ground. While I don’t have personal experience with it, planting onions in the fall seems to have similar advantages.
In theory, you should harvest both garlic and onions in late June or early July. But this being Washington D.C., the Nation’s Capital built on a sticky mess of a marsh, we had 90 degree temperatures in April. And then again in May. While neither stuck around for long, it was enough to definitely affect my plants.
My onions bolted, shooting up flowering stalks. When vegetable plants bolt, they start putting their energy and resources (like water and nutrients) into reproducing rather than agriculturally productive activities like growing me vegetables. Unlike other plants such as basil, which you can stop bolting if you break off the flowers, bolted onions are a lost cause. You have to dig them up and use them right away. You can usually store onions in a root cellar or another cool, dry place for months. In contrast, bolted onions not only stop producing once they bolt, but start breaking down, compromising the ability to store them. Unfortunately, I only had two onions that actually came up, so it didn’t matter all that much. On the other hand, even they were a pleasant surprise, as I have no idea when I planted them. I dug them up over the weekend and already used one to make nut burgers and hope to use the other one soon.
Most of my garlic didn’t bolt, but it was definitely starting to die back. The leaves on several of the plants were yellowed and dry, a guarantee the bulbs aren’t going to grow any more. Even though not all of them were as far gone as possible, I dug up all of it so I could make space for my newly arrived sweet potato starts.
For the most part, I was pleased with my garlic harvest. They came up easily, so I didn’t damage any of the surrounding plants digging them up. Because I pulled it so early, most of the bulbs were rather small, but about the same size as normal supermarket garlic. While some of them had some funky white mold on them, I easily removed it by brushing off the soil and peeling off the outermost layer of skin.
Unlike the onions, I’m hoping to store at least some of my garlic. I do love using it, but five full bulbs could take quite a while! To prepare it for storage, I’m drying it. From my research, it seems like the best way to dry garlic is to gather it together and hang it somewhere relatively dark, as sunlight can change the flavor. Currently, I’m hanging it in my basement, where it’s dark and relatively cool. I didn’t want to run the risk of hanging it outside and it being exposed to both the elements and wildlife. The chances of it rotting or getting nibbled on were too high to risk.
While I’m pleased with my crop, I feel like it could have been much more extensive. Although I don’t want garlic to take up half of my garden, I harvested it so early that I feel like I could have planted much more and still had enough space. In the future, I’ll probably plant it much closer together. Either way, I know I’ll be enjoying some wonderfully garlicky tomato sauce straight from the garden when my tomatoes and basil start producing.