As far as I'm concerned, garlic gets the blue ribbon for growing your own. It's absurdly easy to plant and care for; it tastes great; it looks beautiful and it takes up so little ground that even those with very small gardens can raise enough to be self-sufficient in garlic for a good part of the year.
All you have to do is choose the right varieties; plant at the right time, in the right soil; then harvest when just right and store correctly.
1. Choosing Types of Garlic
If you look in a specialist catalog like the one at Gourmet Garlic Gardens, you'll find dozens of varieties of garlic listed. The folks at Filaree Farm, who offer a hundred, divide them into seven groups: Rocambole, Purple Stripe, Porcelain, Artichoke, Silverskin, Asiatic Turban and Creole. Gourmet GG says it's 10 groups because they divide Asiatic from Turban and add Marbled Purple Stripe and Glazed Purple Stripe to the list.
You see where this is going and you can see a lot more types of garlic on either of those websites, but for general purposes the most important difference is the one between softneck and hardneck.
Softnecks are so called because the whole green plant dies down to pliancy, leaving nothing but the bulb and flexible stems that are easy to braid.
Hardnecks have a stiff stem in the center that terminates in a beautiful flower or cluster of little bulbs then dries to a rigid stick that makes braiding impossible.
Softnecks, the standard garlics of commerce, are the easiest to grow in regions where the weather is mild. They keep longer than hardnecks, but they are less hardy and more prone to make small, very strong-flavored cloves. Hardnecks do best where there is a real winter and are more vulnerable to splitting or simply refusing to produce when grown in warm climates.
Gardeners in most of the U.S. can try some of both. Southerners should probably stick to softnecks and northerners to the hard ones, but microclimates matter. Specialty sellers will suggest best bets based on your climate and tastes, and of course it's wise to get some seed stock from your local farmers' market: whatever it is, it's growing where you are.
Photo: Homegrown garlic, fresh out of the ground. Click the image for recipes that use garlic.
I know this is the age of instant gratification, but this being the season let's hear it for planting young trees. The rewards (I speak from experience) are huge: a personal forest or great big hedge isn't simply a visual treat, a haven for Our Friends The Birds and a way to help fight global warming. It's also a shelter from road intrusions, wind and whatever lies next door.
Even a single tree offers most of these benefits, and if it provides shade from summer sun it gets extra points, for making it easier to turn off the air conditioner.
All this and money too. As long as you don't overpay at the start, trees are a terrific investment. Deposit a 4- to 6-footer now, enjoy a major increase in property value when it hits the 14-foot mark or, of course, soars beyond.
My husband Bill trimming our hemlock hedge. That's a 12-foot ladder.
The hedge in the picture is about a hundred trees long, so it had to start out as young ones. We paid 5 or 10 bucks apiece this being 12 years ago, more or less for an assortment of rather spindly 4- to 5-footers. Two years later, when the tallest had barely hit 6 feet and all were still more promise than performance, I got antsy. Bought a bunch of 10-footers, at about 40 bucks a pop, to plant in front of the most grievous eyesore.
Sure enough it did make an immediate difference, but the little guys only took two or three more years to catch up, and once they did that was it for the benefit. Annual pruning evened it all out. Now that every tree in the hedge is 14 to 16 or more feet tall, you can't tell which is which.
Other benefits of starting small:
* Small trees suffer less damage when taken from the field, so they recover more quickly when planted (big trees usually stay the same height for at least a couple of years; they're too busy repairing their roots to do much of anything else).
* Small trees are DIY, which matters huge when you're talking about a lot of them. You can pick up a 4-footer without serious consequences for your back. You can dig a hole for it without taking all day, and you can keep it watered...even a skinny 8-foot tree needs about 20 gallons of water each week, more if the weather is hot and windy.
Or is it the Seven Pillars of Horticultural Wisdom, or the Ten All-time Top Garden Tips?
As everyone's resolutions remind us, we love attaching a number to advice, a number smaller than the one I regard as most realistic: The Twenty Three Thousand, Four Hundred and Sixty Two Things It's Important to Remember Before Getting Out of Bed.
So be warned; I haven't really honed it down to only seven; these are just the first seven essentials that came to mind when I decided to do this. And not in order, either.
The compost bins at Stonecrop Gardens in Cold Spring, New York.
* Make Compost
* Use Compost
* Plant Crops in Wide Beds
* Feed the Soil, Not the Plants
* Share Something
* Be There
Short version: Mother Nature never throws anything away.
Longer version: Composting is the rare silk purse from sow's ear, something for nothing win-win. You start out with kitchen, yard and garden debris and wind up with two benefits: 1) a great soil amendment and 2) many green points for avoiding the landfill.
It's easy to fall into thinking that compost's last name is bin, and that careful layering and turning are part of the deal. But piling shredded leaves in a corner counts too. So does "trench composting," handy for those with little garden space, and so does bringing your kitchen scraps to a place (try the nearest community garden) that will compost them if you can't. I have a friend in Manhattan, for instance, who brings her coffee grounds, orange peels and such to the Lower East Side Ecology Center at Union Square Greenmarket.
When it comes to "home grown is best," there is no common vegetable -- including tomatoes! -- that proves this as conclusively as peas. Three reasons:
- 1. Peas start turning starchy the instant they leave the plant. Even picked-in-the-morning fresh will be less sweet by dinnertime than those picked right before cooking...or, delight of delights, eating raw.
- 2. Commercial pea varieties are usually less flavorful than the ones sold for home gardening.
- 3. Beautiful, tasty pea shoots and flowers are seldom marketed, and when they are, they cost a fortune.
If you have a garden, planting peas is a no-brainer. If you're growing food in containers, planting peas will show your dedication to quality over quantity.
Planting Peas in Containers
Let's get the unpleasant part out of the way first: peas aren't good container plants, because they want cool weather and moist soil. Containers are by nature hot and dry, and they're usually sitting on or above heat-retentive paved surfaces, so you're more or less working uphill all the way. Nevertheless, it can be done, and the results are worth it.
1. Select a large container -- at least 14 inches wide and deep. Something much larger, like a half whiskey barrel, is much better. A light color is better than a dark one; consider painting the barrel. Fill it with a mixture of 3/4ths soilless mix like Promix and 1/4th compost.
"It's a dog-eat-dog world, and I'm wearing Milk Bone shorts." ~Kelly Allen
With all the hustle and bustle, our holidays were about as Zen as a common household refrigerator. (Is the light always on or is it just me? Similar to asking, "Am I conscious now?" or "Is my own inner mental light on or not?")
When it comes to refrigerators, for the record, men eat far more fruits and vegetables if they're stored on the same shelf as the beer...at Christmas time or otherwise. Similarly, storing fruits and vegetables at eye-level reminds everyone to mindfully eat them. But for some reason the crisper drawers are at the base of the fridge and we somehow always forget about the stuff we've stashed there. Cleaning out the crisper is a sad reminder of how good food turns into puddles of goo beneath other goodies -- and unless you compost, that goo ain't green!
Our new dog, a rescued 18 month-old Cairn terrier called Emerson (named after the author Ralph Waldo Emerson or the 80s band Emerson, Lake & Palmer -- your choice) is always sitting at the base of our opened refrigerator right in front of the crisper drawer. I'm convinced that lato was right when he joked, "Your dog is a true philosopher." That being said, Emerson's either contemplating his own mental light, wondering how he might joyfully clean the slimy mess that's growing in our over-crowed crisper or -- most probably - coveting the entire mess.
So if your refrigerator is a disaster hung over from this holiday season, remember that many people still swear by baking soda to keep it smelling fresh. Just tear the top off a new box and let it do its thing. After a month, if you can find it among everything else you forgot was in there, replace the old baking soda with a fresh one and use the old box in a cleaning project so that nothing goes to waste (e.g. just pour it down the kitchen drain to freshen the pipes or add some white vinegar to unclog them).
If you want to follow the most recent advice from some scientists who have looked at the issue, go for something even more powerful than baking soda, such as activated charcoal, which is more absorptive.
To remove that inevitable puddle of holiday goo, your crisper drawer will shine like new when cleaned with borax. Apply to a soft cloth or a dampened sponge and use as you would any commercial kitchen cleanser. Once cleaned, rinse with clean water.