As we were working in the garden today, Ellen said, “Mama, a nice thing about garlic is that you only have to buy seeds once.”
Yes indeed, observant Ellen. And actually, in our case, we were given our first garlic “seeds” from dear friends, the Meadowlark farmers, years ago. Just a few days after our wedding, Jeffrey and I took a brown paper bag full of garlic heads with us to Pittsburgh, and we planted the cloves, that fall, in a corner of our 20′ by 20′ community garden plot. Our first crop of garlic came up the next spring, when we’d been married for six months — and we’ve harvested and planted garlic every year since.
What makes garlic a particularly nostalgic plant is that a piece of each head harvested in July is planted back in the earth in October for the next year’s crop. In this way, the garlic that Amabel and I are separating today — running our hands over, counting, placing in the earth — these cloves have been growing with us for eleven years. As long as we’ve been a family, this very same garlic has been a part of our lives.
Sitting in the warm October sun, separating garlic, I especially love the smell. Not just the pungent, spicy scent that often fills our kitchen — but the smell of autumn soil. It isn’t a fresh, spring earth smell, with busy earthworms and bright light. It is a more mature smell: the scent of soil that has nourished six months of roots — greens, sunflowers, parsley, nasturtiums, scallions, cabbage, marigolds, carrots, radishes, calendula, dill, arugula — the roots of all these plants still mingling with dirt and insects. It is the smell of soil that has already given so much. This summer we ate it its fruits, used them to make pickles, made bouquets out of its flowers, blended its leaves into pesto, fed its leftovers to the chickens, provided food for the bees and butterflies and birds, soaked it into salve . . . all this from a modest patch of brown earth, now laid bare and ready to recieve cloves of garlic.
Jeffrey uses a broadfork to loosen the soil. I smooth out the earth and make 115 holes (roughly 12″ apart) for 115 cloves to snuggle down during the coming season of cold. As I put each clove into its hole, my large belly touches the earth. The girls cover the cloves with soil. Jeffrey covers the entire bed with straw. And now this garden bed, which was a jungle awash in the colors of an abundant season just a few hours ago, is blanketed with a thick layer of golden brown mulch.
This is the first of two beds we intend to plant, but the second bed is still filled with tomato plants, peppers, and celery that we can’t bare to tare out just yet. Will we plant a second bed with garlic before our baby is born? I do not know, but having one bed planted at least feels like a sort of insurance — or reassurance. I will sleep well tonight, knowing that we have put garlic in the ground.
Planting in October is a contemplative act. Garlic roots me here to our little place on earth and to our family. I think about years past as Canada Geese honk overhead; leaves fade and fall; and nearly everything around me has gone to seed. Planting now, in this season, feels like reaching deep into a future we can only just imagine. Spring, when the garlic shoots will emerge, is a whole winter away. I know this all too well, and so I linger with gratitude in the smell of the garlic and in the smell of the autumn earth.