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Grace of garlic

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I love garlic. My wife and daughter love garlic, too. Even my cat loves garlic, as though she knows the fleas hate it. I peel, crush, slice, dice, mince, mash, press, fry, boil and bake it. Raw garlic rubbed on buttered toast fills out many a meal of pasta or soup. With milder fare, unpeeled cloves dry roast on cast iron, paper skin mottled with burn spots.

Growing my own was the final allium frontier—and an oddly overdue quest, given a large backyard garden and years of tomato tinkering. My heirlooms' unwieldiness made spare raised-bed real estate rare, but garlic's growing season starts when the last bit of life is frost-drained from caged vines, when most green thumbs are hidden by mittens. But we're talking garlic here—easy to grow, nonsprawling and now a costly staple amid whirling Sinophobic rumors of global market manipulation. It had to get done.

Thanksgiving came and went. There were cultivars to read up on and mail-order possibilities; an early wintry mix overrode my usual overplanning. A hurried visit to Turtle Run Farm's stand at the Carrboro Farmers' Market set me on the straight and narrow. Saxapahaw's Kevin Meehan, the only farmer I know selling garlic late into the season, watched as I picked out a larger-than-usual bunch of the biggest heads. If I was planning on planting, he said, I should save the tasty handful for eating.

"So where to get seed garlic in a pinch?" I asked. Kevin looked both ways before leaning over his table, "Wal-Mart." He smiled and expounded: They sold cheap, large cloves, and most important, ones that hadn't been treated with sprout-preventing inhibitors, unlike most supermarket bulbs.

I felt silly driving to New Hope Commons for 10 garlic heads, but procrastinators can't be too particular. Plus, more snow was in the forecast. Once home, I broke up the big-box bulbs and poked out 18 rough rows in a spot raked free of summer's debris. I meant to add a heavy mulch to protect young roots from a freeze, but true to form, I put it off. The snow came, and then the cold, the ground-hardening cold.

By late January, I confessed to Kevin I'd neglected to mulch. I searched his face for absolution. "Might make it, might not," he offered. I resolved to finally insulate the beds with mower-shredded oak leaves. Of course, I promptly forgot. The image of icebound tendrils weighed on me, but what was the cure for damage done?

A few weeks ago, after a needed rain and record-book mercury climbs, I glanced at the garden while stacking firewood. I stopped short: My neglected garlic bed's tassels of chickweed were punctuated by a grid of tiny green spears, every clove somehow accounted for. While I've had my share of horticultural ups and downs, this made me leap. After a winter of dereliction, these shoots smelled of grace.

Now, with redbuds blushing and a windowsill tray of tomato seeds sweating under plastic wrap, I see hearty tufts from my back room. They've transformed into verdant tridents, promising a season of homegrown aroma.

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