It’s time to plant garlic. Approximately. This crop is oh-so forgiving.
Do you know how easy it is to grow your own garlic? Mine grows about 2 inches away from the cement of my front stoop, amongst a mini-rose and some coral bell plants. No veggie garden, no fencing, no special soil or unique conditions. Just a few inches of dirt, lots of sun, and regular water.
And here’s my favorite part: a few years ago I bought a big expensive head of organic purple ‘elephant garlic’ from the grocery store. I ate most of it, but decided to stick 2 cloves of it in the aforementioned dirt. I happened to do that in the fall. The rest is history. Every summer I pull two enormous, plump, purple heads of this special garlic out of my little front porch garden. They hang to dry for a couple weeks in the garden office (my counselling office). Every fall I put two little cloves of it back in the dirt. Rinse the dirt from fingernails and repeat!
Choosing to work with a resilient and forgiving plant ally such as garlic can be immensely therapeutic. Not only is garlic literally medicine (it is highly nutritious, boosts immune function, can reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol, is a potent antioxidant which may help to prevent dementia, and can help to detoxify heavy metals in the body), but gardening with it brings another form of medicine…
Growing garlic teaches us to notice and work with the changing seasons. Our ‘fruit’ is hiding beneath the soil so we must learn to listen to the plant in order to know when to harvest. We will notice the intense heat of summer, the abundance of bees and butterflies, and we’ll watch her green spike leaves start to turn brown and die away. Another and another, browning and sagging. It’s time to dig her up, dust her off, and give her some air for a couple weeks. We’ll need to remember to go get her if she’s hanging in a potting shed or carport. We’ll snip off the plant stalk and the roots. Suddenly plant becomes food! Then, we’ll notice the days getting shorter, the nights cooler. The geese are yelling overhead. It’s time to break off a couple cloves of that treasure we unearthed and put them back in the dirt. I love that slightly unsettling feeling of putting food in the ground instead of in my mouth… suddenly food becomes plant again. Many months later, after the snow has come and gone, we’ll see her leaves emerging and growing up. As the season is warming and the baby birds are all leaving their nests we’ll notice her growing a slender flower stalk that begins upside-down and slowly curls upward toward the sky. Are you looking forward to enjoying that flower? You might not like what comes next.
Growing garlic for eating (and medicine) demands sacrifice. We must sacrifice the big beautiful spiked flower (we’ll never even get to see it) if we want to harvest a nice plump head of garlic. Left to her own devices the plant would put all her energy into creating that flower, attracting bees to pollinate, and reproducing. The bulb would be a skinny, depleted little thing if we allowed her to make a flower. So we trim that curious curling bud (called a ‘scape’) before it develops and ask her to devote her energy to the bulb instead. The good news is we can eat the scape too.
The plant knows. One minute she is directing all her energy to the flower, the next she is redirecting it all to the bulb.
Growing garlic can teach us about ancestors and lineage. The cloves I’ll be eating and planting soon are the direct descendants of that original head I bought years ago… whose lineage stretches much further back. In fact, somewhere within each of these big juicy bulbs is the original clove I planted last year. It can help us to appreciate the whole cycle of birth and death. It plays out through the seasons of the year, in the production of that garlic head, and in our own existence. And every part of it is necessary, and beautiful in it’s own way.
When I’m tending to the garlic, whatever stage it’s at, I am grounded and focused. My other anxieties and obligations fall away for the moment. For a brief time I am engaged in a sacred relationship with this incredible plant ally and teacher. I can feel the presence of my own ancestors: women with brave hearts and dirt under their fingernails, at least some of the time. It’s in these moments that I can remember who I am and where I’m from. This depth of belonging is transformative.
Do you work with garlic medicine? Do you think you might give it a go? Please tell me your story, I would love to hear it!