Happy Garlic

When I planted my garlic back in October, everything I read said it should be ready to harvest in December or January. I was doubtful. I’ve always lived in places where the garden was covered in at least two feet of snow in December; the idea of harvesting in winter is as fantastic to me as the thought of meeting a unicorn in a forest. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say, so I planted on faith and more or less forgot about them.

Planting garlic in October.
Planting garlic in October.

Yesterday I went out with both kids and the puppy to do some playing and weeding, and was delighted to notice that the tops of the garlic are dying off. This means, or so I’ve read, that the bulbs are mature. Now I’m supposed to stop watering them so they can dry out a bit before digging them up.

Garlic tops are dying off. Almost ready to harvest!
Garlic tops are dying off. Almost ready to harvest!

Wait… Stop watering? I live in Oregon. Winter is when we get rain. Plenty of rain. Rain every week. How do I stop watering? I’m actually asking for an answer, if anyone reading this has one. Currently, my tentative plan is to construct a little clear-plastic tent over them, so they can get sun but not water. Is that crazy? Do other people do that? Or do most people just dig them up when the tops finish dying off, and not worry about drying the ground?

In other gardening news: The garden is continuing to slowly wake up. Today I found that the fennel I planted last spring, which died off in the fall, has sent up a fluffy green plume. The mint, which grows in a vigorous, untidy bed near the garden shed, has started putting up delicate baby shoots. And the azalea behind the house has put out new leaves and, possibly, tiny flower buds. I also found some adorably chubby little rosette-shaped sprouts of a plant I never managed to identify last summer, but which put out large, flat-topped, pink flower heads. The flower heads were shaped like Queen Anne’s Lace, but the rest of the plant was completely different.

The kids were thrilled to have more time than usual outside. Niko went straight to his new tire swing, which kept him happy while I collected garden tools, and then he alternately ran back and forth across the yard with Cody and helped me pull weeds. Meanwhile, Sofia roamed the yard with not a single qualm at being so far from me — I kept having to go bring her back as she wandered away. I had put a baby leash on her, but she was too unsteady on her feet to use it to guide her as we walked, and it was far too short to use as a tether. So she just wandered while I kept an eye on her between weed pulls. Uproot — see Sofie peering into the wheelbarrow. Toss a weed into the wheelbarrow — she’s exploring the thyme. Next weed — Sofie’s discovered the blue gazing ball pedestal. She was happy as a clam, playing by herself.

Have I mentioned how much I love living and gardening here?

Spring in October

I’m a northern girl by heritage but not, it turns out, by disposition. I was raised in the frigid winter climate of Northwestern Ontario and the deep snow of northern British Columbia, then migrated to the somewhat milder Anchorage, Alaska. Every year since I was old enough to take notice, I’ve hated the long, dark winters of the north more and more. After the excitement of the winter’s first flakes and drifts, snow is just one more way for my feet to get wet and cold. Watching the sun set at 3:30 in the afternoon as I wave goodbye to my students. shivering, is not my idea of enjoying the majesty of Alaska’s nature. Searching for a dry, snow-free spot to sit at the end-of-school picnic in May brings me no joy. No, beautiful as Alaska is, it’s not the place for me.

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About seven years ago, my husband and I formulated a “five-year plan.” We would keep our new Anchorage condo until we had built up enough equity to make money selling it. That would be our ticket out of Alaska. We would move to a place where you didn’t have to use a flashlight to navigate to your car at four o’clock on a winter afternoon, where the highway wasn’t littered with traffic accidents every time fall turns to winter. Every. Single. Time. Lifelong Alaskans forget how to drive in snow, each and every winter. We dreamed of finding a place where people grew crops like melons and tomatoes right outside in their yards, no greenhouses and heaters needed. A place where summer was summer, and fall was a riot of color. A place where there was no snow to shovel. In other words: paradise.

A year and a half ago, we packed up our belongings and son, and, with the help of my best friend who helped me stay sane on the long drive to Juneau, Alaska so that we could take the ferry to the state of Washington, we left the place that had been home for Aaron for thirty-one years (only fourteen for me).

Now we’ve been in our “forever home,” a low brown house on two acres, built in 1979, for one summer, after renting for a year while house hunting. And it is paradise. Here it is, the end of October, and the slight chill of the last few rainy days feels like a rainy day at the height of Alaskan summer. Friends and family in my former homes of Ontario and Alaska are already shoveling driveways and bundling up for the walk from front door to car. Today I was out shopping in a cardigan over a thin summer shirt, and was perfectly comfortable.

But the comfort of a moderate climate is small compared to the sense of amazement I find as I garden here. A couple of weeks ago I saw shoots coming up near our pond, where last spring grape hyacinths had bloomed. I went to the omniscient Google and discovered that these amazing little bulbs sprout in the fall. Plants that come up in October? I had no idea plants did that!

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That same weekend, I did some fall planting of bulbs that will provide brightIMG_0560 springtime color next year. Planting in the fall! Now, I know people in Anchorage must IMG_0605have done this too, because I have seen with my own eyes crocuses pushing up through snow in late April and early May. But I have never myself done fall gardening. It’s a mind-boggling and delightful concept for someone to whom October means the first snowfall of the year.

Things just grow on their own here, with no help from human hands. In the soil half  of my compost bin (that is, the half that is done decomposing and is now rich garden dirt, as opposed to the half that is freshly discarded leaves and kitchen scraps), I just discovered five young tomato plants and a large patch of parsley, joining a melon plant that has an almost-ripe melon that we’ll pick soon. In fact, this isn’t good, not from a gardening perspective. It’s a sign that the compost pile isn’t decomposing properly, killing seeds with internal heat as it ought to. But I can’t bring myself to uproot these miracle plants. Young parsley and tomatoes sprouting in October, as if no one told them they’re supposed to be curling up and dying under a layer of snow, rigid inside a foot of frozen earth. Incredible.

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But, oddly, the plant that has solidified this sense of magical fall growth has been garlic. Researching this summer, I discovered that garlic is best planted either in fall, for a late-winter/early spring crop, or in late winter for an early summer crop. So said, again, the all-knowing Google. But I didn’t truly believe it. What northern gardener would put plants into the ground in October and expect to harvest in winter? I planted anyway, obedient to the wisdom of search engines, shaking my head at the crazy idea of a January harvest.

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And then. And then. Last weekend I strolled past the garden bed where I’d planted the garlic. And – NO WAY! Seven fresh green sprouts against the dark brown earth. Sprouts in October, promising a winter crop, a frail green proof of paradise.

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Oregon. My own paradise, found.