Mid winter and the ground is cold and sodden. Even the weeds, well some of them anyway, grow slowly in the short days and winter shade. Our garden, on the south-west side of the house gets about 2 hours of direct sunlight a day, and that only occurs on the side furthermost from the house, AND if the sun is shining.
Yet the ground still yields for us winter greens (bok choi, mizuna, rocket, lettuce, endive, mustard, silverbeet), and the sunlight of last summer is still stored underground, in the knobbly and nutty tubers of Jerusalem artichoke and the oddly violet-tasting yacon. I know which I prefer - some vegetables deserve their obscurity through that taste hurdle one must overcome upon putting it in your mouth. Jerusalem artichoke has to be one of the easiest of vegetables, indeed I would say don't plant it unless you want it EVERY year - related to sunflowers it produces a large clump of stems to 2-3 m tall, topped with dozens of small sunflowers. Meanwhile, underground, the plant produces dozens of tubers, seemingly replacing all of the dirt under the plant with food. Leave just one by the end of winter, and the whole cycle starts again. Yacon on the other hand is like a dahlia on steroids - large fuzzy purplish leaves, with a good 5 kg or more of kumara-like roots produced underground. When you roast them (our most common usage) you have to get over the texture - unlike potatoes, pumpkin, and kumara they stay crunchy when roasted. And we have the remains of last years bean crop ready to eat, tightly packed in their jars with, in hindsight, more than a hint of chilli.
A little oddly, now is the time of year to plant a crop that we harvest in the heat of summer. Garlic, planted according to the old adage "plant on the shortest day, harvest on the longest" is best planted now, and its incredibly satisfying to get one bulb back for every clove committed to the ground. What's more, it's pretty foolproof to grow, takes up little space, isn't fussy with soils, and, if you buy NZ garlic anyway, saves buying garlic at $15-20 a kilo. We are about half way through the garlic we harvested last summer, and most of it is still in pretty good nick, so from a small patch of ground we will be nearly self sufficient in garlic year around.
How to grow garlic?
1. Find some garlic that is either New Zealand grown garlic, or garlic that you can see is starting to sprout (there will be a little green tip visible through the partly transparent garlic skins. You can also buy seed garlic from garden shops for a reasonble price.
2. Break the bulbs up until you have either the number of bulbs you think your household eats in a year, or the number to fill your garlic patch at 10-15 cm apart.
3. Prepare the garden bed so it is well-weeded and with a fine soil to at least 10 cm depth.
4. Plant 10-15 cm apart in rows wide enough to get a hoe between (about 20 cm apart). Place them pointy end up so you bury them a little shallower than the clove is long.
5. Top dress with some fertiliser (not essential) once they start to get going in the early Spring.
6.Keep the weeds down by hoeing.
7. When the plants start to yellow and die down in mid-summer, carefully dig them up and let them dry in the sun for a few days.
8. Store in a cool dry place (we hang ours above our front door on a nail as its shaded, dry, with a southerly aspect). We haven't seen any vampires in the house either since putting them there.
The garlic in my garden dont need lots of compost in the soil. A garden bed you prepared for greedier vegetables the season before is perfectly good.
So garlic and God? Little things like crops to plant in winter remind me that all seasons are needed and serve a purpose, which is quite something for a self-professed winter-phobe. "For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven" Ecclesiastes 3 v. 1.
That's kind of reassuring when you believe the world, and its seasons, was created by a benevolent being. Some crops also need these cold dreary days to begin growth, or to initiate the flowers that give summer fruit (like berry crops, which, especially for my 2-year old daughter, are a highlight of our summer garden.
And sustainability is something for everyone to be concerned with, and I would argue, particularly if you believe in God. If the planet was made by God, and declared to be good, why would he want us to trash it? Of all the vegetables we can grow in our gardens, imported garlic is one of the most travelled - in the realm of 11,000 kilometres (Wellington to Beijing). NZ produces a lot of our own vegetables, but now imports around 2,400 tons of garlic annually, and exports about 500 tons. Production of NZ garlic has plummeted since the onset of garlic imports from China, and for each kilo imported from China there is an additional 5500 kj of energy from fossil fuels consumed, along with the emission of carbon dioxide (380 g) and nitrogen oxides (5.2 g).
Now I am not inherently opposed to food imports. In the fruit bowl in front of me as I write is a Phillipines papaya, and I am rather partial to eating grapes at any time of year. But garlic is different - we can grow it and grow it well, it stores well, and we could be self-sufficient in it. We import because in our minds the environmental cost doesnt outweigh how cheap it is to buy it imported. But NZ garlic comes at significantly more cost, so my challenge is - if you can't afford NZ garlic, and you have some growing space, why not plant some now?
Till next time