Just when you thought you could finally escape the garden, it's already time to plant garlic. This rite of autumn has been an important event in my gardening season for years, but this past summer the garlic patch became more crucial than ever. That's because I devised a method to make the garlic patch grow a bunch of other crops, too, without any loss of garlic production. I call my method "hurling random seeds at garlic patch."
This is more than just a horticultural parlor trick. When you grow as much garlic as I do, that patch takes a lot of garden space, leaving precious little ground for all the other goodies one might wish to grow. Intercropping other crops with garlic substantially increases the yield from however much ground you've got to work with.
Last April, I gathered the seeds from countless half-empty seed packets and plastic bags, and combined these seeds in a bowl. I tossed handfuls of this mix into the young garlic patch, hoping some of the plants would take hold. Throughout the summer I repeated this procedure with newly acquired seeds—mostly carrots, because I had a feeling they'd work well. The little plants took hold wherever conditions were favorable, and grew in the shade of garlic plants and each other. The seedlings had plenty of water since I irrigate my garlic like a maniac.
The post-garlic garden became a dense and diverse ecosystem, easy on the eyes as well as the belly. Harvesting from this garden was an act of gathering as much as gardening, and gave an element of surprise to every harvesting adventure. Over the course of the summer, many plants, like spinach, escarole, lettuce and amaranth, went to seed, ensuring new generations will be ready to come up next year if I let them.
Of all my post-garlic plants, it was the carrots that stole the show. They grew to be monsters—as sweet as candy, heavy enough to require excess baggage charges and big enough to make a porn star blush. Clearly, the carrots didn't seem to mind the garlic. And based on my garlic crop, the feeling appears to be mutual. The lush carrot foliage shaded the ground between the garlic plants, acting as a living mulch to prevent evaporation from the soil, while underground, the carrot roots and garlic bulbs seemed to leave each other alone.
Above ground, garlic and carrots complement each other nicely in the kitchen as well, demonstrated with savory elegance by carrot mayonnaise. Although it's not a true mayonnaise, carrot mayo fulfills the basic requirement of mayo; namely, if you put it on food, food will taste better. This year, thanks to my garlic patch and the vigorous carrot crop it produced, I'm going to make a lot of that sweet, orange, creamy goodness.
Slice your carrots into inch-size chunks. Bake them at 300 degrees, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes, until they're lightly browned. Remove, and while they cool add a quarter cup of oil (I prefer olive or safflower) to a blender, along with as many cloves of garlic as suits you, and blend. As soon as the carrot chunks are cool enough to work with, add them to the blender and blend until smooth. The hotter the chunks, the more they will cook the raw garlic, which mellows it. Depending on how much carrot you're working with, add oil as necessary, so the contents of the blender keep a viscous vortex as the blades whirl.
When you're done adding carrots, keep blending as you season with salt and pepper and, if you wish, herbs like oregano or marjoram. Your carrot mayo is now ready. Spread it on bread. Dip chips in it. Or wallop a dollop onto your plate beside the main event. Whatever you do with it, your carrot mayo will soon be gone, and your first bite should provide enough incentive to plan your own garlic patch garden ecosystem. If so, then it's time to start breaking ground.
Cultivated properly, any garlic clove can grow into a whole bulb. So the first step in garlic growing is to locate some bulbs of garlic you think will flourish in your area. The farmers market is the ideal place to find proven local varieties and to compare the characteristics you're looking for. I look for garlic that grows into big bulbs with a small number of cloves per bulb (six at most). And I like my cloves to peel easy.
Generally planted in October or November, garlic will sprout roots in fall and begin its upward journey in spring. Garlic is a heavy feeder, so it will need good soil with plenty of nitrogen and organic material.
For planting, carefully break your bulbs into individual cloves, leaving the paper on and making sure the scabby plate at the bottom of each clove remains intact—the edge of that scab will sprout the roots. Plant the cloves an inch deep, scab side down, six inches apart. Then mulch your patch with a couple inches of straw (not hay, which contains seeds). The mulch will insulate the garlic through winter and help the soil retain moisture.
I used to leave the mulch on all spring and let the garlic sprouts push through it, but now I pull the mulch off in March to let the ground warm up in preparation for hurling seeds in April. This spring, I'll hurl about half of the patch in carrots, while conducting more random hurling trials in the other half. Until then, I'll be planting garlic, flipping through seed catalogues, and eating carrot mayo.