My first crop of garlic in Japan failed. A late planting paired with plastic mulch resulted in small or non-existent bulbs. It was a good lesson about the new climate I found myself in, though, and definitely not the last. Squash, kale, and beets have since then patiently suffered through my experiments in growing here, and slowly all of us (me and the aforementioned vegetables) are learning what we need in order to thrive here in Tokyo.
This time I started with seed garlic purchased at the Earth Day Market last fall. All organic and picture perfect with good flavor (we ate the other head), it seemed like good stock for growing, too. Last year I only put in seed garlic purchased at a big box store south of us about thirty minutes by bike, and part of me was concerned that possible poor quality there contributed to failure in the field. I did have some of this on hand again this year, and so a few cloves of it went into the ground for comparison.
While I would not say garlic is fussy, it does need a bit of space to call it's own. Like tulips, onions, and daffodils, garlic loiters in the garden for months without much activity; however, once the soil and the weather begin to warm it makes itself known. The lasagna bed I put in late last summer seemed a perfect spot - out of the way with good drainage and rich soil - that wouldn't get in the way of winter or summer crops that cycle through much faster. I topped everything off with a few bags of leaves pilfered late at night from a nearby bicycle path. (Volunteer crews come through regularly to clean up the leaves, trim, and generally tidy, leaving behind gorgeous bags of leaves destined for the city compost piles unless a gardener pedals past.)
A number of vendors at the May Earth Day Market had "new garlic" for sale. I was a bit surprised to see it there on the tables as mine didn't look at all prepared to come out of the ground. I bought some, of course, and asked Kobayashi Farms when they planted it. September, a full month before mine went in the ground, was their answer and I left thinking that was the end of the story. I would simply harvest later.
Well, as the days wore on and the rain poured down day after day, I realized that perhaps I was missing a detail or two. Garlic's papery bulbs like good drainage in fertile soil. The plastic mulch of the first year kept weeds down, but didn't let water evaporate fast enough and that crop nearly drowned. A natural mulch (leaves, straw, or grass) helps regulate soil temperature and allows the right amount of moisture to remain while still keeping weeds down. (I'm still coming to terms with black plastic mulch, to be honest, but it does have it's merits.)
This year's crop seemed much happier in the lasagna bed, and until the rainy season arrived I fully expected it was content to ride out it's normal life cycle there. With the steady downpours and daily incremental increases in heat and humidity, though, the garlic along with the kale, swiss chard, and broccoli bolted in a kind of panic. Without even so much as a fare-thee-well, it quickly faded. The window of opportunity presented by two days of brilliantly hot, sunny weather seemed like an obvious choice for beginning the harvest and setting the bulbs to dry.
The bulbs so far look good. (A few remain in the ground for a gardening friend to dig. She's never seen garlic growing before much less harvested it, and so we're meeting soon to take up the last ones.) I've set them to dry in a shady spot by our front door, which makes our front balcony look more like the entry to a farmhouse. The largest and most perfect looking will be kept back for planting this fall, and the others will get added to pesto or our daily salads or cold soups.
My gardening friend and I are plotting that the whole first bed closest to the west wall will be garlic this fall. It will mean some hauling of leaves, compost, and manure (hopefully from a blueberry-chicken place just up the road!), but it will be fun. I'm also thinking about using the remnants of the tatami mats to line the bed a bit. And it will be a great way to build up the soil in the garden. It seems like the least I can do for the farmers in return for their trust in me all this time.
Got any garlic growing tips? Or a favorite recipe? I'd be glad to hear any and all!