Tag Archives: low maintenance gardening

My Garlic Twists to the Right

I do not consider myself directionally challenged, however when I harvested our garlic over the weekend it appears I have trouble with up and down. Look at the photo and notice how all the heads of garlic swing to the right. When you plant garlic you separate a head into individual cloves then stick them in the ground late fall – pointy end up. After that you forget about it all winter, snap off the scapes in the early summer, and harvest the bulbs in July (one clove grows into one head). It’s really pretty easy. Or so I thought until I began pulling up heads which were somewhat stuck because of their right hooks.

garlic that swings to the right

In our house we go through fifty pounds of garlic a year. You’d think we were brushing our teeth with it or suffered from a vampire infestation in the basement. If someone ever forced me to get rid of all the herbs in my cupboard  I would rip up the floorboards and jam heads of garlic down where no one could see. I would become a garlic horder.

Fall Garlic Planting

Our family uses garlic granulated, frozen, but most of all fresh. We slip it into almost every dish. So this past fall I committed to growing a serious crop of garlic to try and minimize what we buy at the farmer’s markets and stores. We shall see how long it lasts.

Garlic hanging on fence

Not all of my garlic was twisted. Heck, I didn’t even plant everything I harvested. There was a surprise crop (above) which volunteered itself from an old garden in our yard. We must have garlic elves in our yard looking out for our extreme garlicy needs.

Straight garlic

As I’ve mentioned before I am not the world’s best gardener. If you want to know more about growing garlic check out Margaret Roach’s blog. My seed garlic was purchased from Dan, the garlic guy, at the Amherst Farmer’s Market. Directional disclaimer – Dan’s instructions do say plant the garlic cloves pointy end up. So it wasn’t his fault this year’s garlic crop was wacky.

Midsummer harvest - garlic and lilies

After the garlic harvest I make a huge batch of pesto. The basil is usually ready (if I didn’t dawdle in the spring getting it planted) so I just have to make sure there are plenty of pine nuts and olive oil on hand. This is not a classic pesto where I carefully grind everything together with a giant mortar and pestle. Nope, my mini food processor does the trick – zip, zap, zoop.

Basil plugs ready to plant in spring

I’m not going to give you portions because everyone’s tolerance for garlic varies. We use 15-24 cloves of garlic for a small batch of pesto (2 cups) which might be overwhelming to some. My rule of thumb is have a loaf of bread next to you and taste as you go, adjusting the garlic-basil-olive oil-nut ratio.

Basic Pesto

Basic Pesto

Fresh garlic, peeled

Basil leaves

Pine Nuts (or almonds or walnuts)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Shredded Parmesan cheese (optional)

I start by putting in what seems a “normal” amount of garlic – 2-4 heads worth, depending on their size. We like our pesto to have bite. Fast spin in the food processor to roughly chop the garlic. Then in goes some olive oil and as many basil leaves as I can jam into my mini processor. Whizz some more and taste. Usually it takes several go rounds to add enough basil. I taste little spoonfuls of the evolving pesto on bread or plain crackers as I go. When it gets close to perfect I add the pine nuts, since they are soft and can disappear if you add them sooner. I pulse until they are chopped but haven’t disappeared. Throughout this process I drizzle in olive oil to keep the mixture slightly loose. It’s not soup (though you can add pesto to soups), nor should it be paste unless you’re planning on using it as such. You are in charge and running this food processor after all.

When it tastes good to you, scoop out the finished pesto and cover with a thin layer of olive oil to keep it from oxidizing. Or freeze in small containers (I sometimes use an ice cube tray), again with a small layer of olive oil on top. We add cheese at the table since some of us don’t do well with dairy.

Garlic harvest 2013

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Chive Talking

I am an unreliable gardener. Sometimes I lavish my plants with all the love and water they deserve, while other times I ignore and neglect them horribly. I like the idea of a garden, but somehow lack the day-to-dayness necessary to have anything that approaches magnificent. It’s one of those ugly truths you have to sometimes acknowledge about yourself. The conundrum is I love having plants and flowers around, and I have a pretty green thumb – I just need the kind of plants that can take care of themselves. My mom tries to let me off the hook by saying that I’ll have time for gardening when the kids are grown. Perhaps. We’ll see.

"chive blossoms"

Chive blossoms

I have several plants that thankfully fall into the category of no maintenance. A flamboyant hot pink tree peony which came from my Grammy Thompson’s house on Grand Street in Croton. Some scented geraniums my Mom gave me, which I love dearly since they are the first things up in the spring and the last to go each fall. Hostas, bleeding hearts, and ferns also fall onto my delightful list of  “Don’t worry about us, we’ll take care of ourselves” plants.

"Grammy Thompson's tree peony"

Grammy Thompson’s tree peony

In my garden beds the list of no-to-low maintenance edibles include garlic, rhubarb, and chives. Chives grow like weeds, which is a good thing since we love to put them in everything. Russell mixes chives into cream cheese to smear on his bagels, Isabelle sprinkle them on top of her scrambled eggs, I stir them into soups and put a generous handful into my Grammy Caldwell’s Potato Salad.

"Grammy Caldwell's potato salad"

Grammy Caldwell’s potato salad

Grammy Caldwell always had chives in her garden. Even when she moved out of her house on Strathmore Drive and into an apartment, there would be pots of the tall, slender herb growing along her terrace. Chives are one of the essential ingredients for her potato salad. As a result they were one of the first plants I bought for our garden and every spring they are there to greet me. This year I even dug up a bunch to give away, they’ve become so abundant.

"chives potted up to give away"

Ready to give away

One of the quirks I remember about Grammy and her signature potato salad was she would scoop out a serving for my brother Jay and set it aside before she added the chopped hard-boiled eggs. I’m not sure why she did this since she rarely catered to people’s eating whims. Grammy turned my cousin Steve’s refusal to eat green peas into a family joke. Grammy had taken Steve (and probably his siblings) out to eat at Edward’s Tea Room. When they were served their food my cousin flatly refused to eat any of his peas. Grammy (who was a big believer in trying things)  asked little Stevie what he didn’t like about green peas. He replied, “Well Gram, I don’t like the insides and I don’t like the outsides.” She laughed every time she retold the story, yet she didn’t not serve green peas to the rest of us just because Steve thought they were icky. Somehow though there was  always one portion of potato salad without eggs.

I’ve modified her classic potato salad a bit. I use a different mayonnaise, despite Grammy’s insistence that Helman’s was the best. I don’t bother peeling the potatoes, but otherwise I do as she taught me. I boil the potatoes whole and then cut them into bite size chunks, usually singeing my fingers as I do so. I dribble the cider vinegar over them while they are still hot so they can soak it in better. And I always add a generous amount of chives.

Grammy Caldwell’s Potato Salad

4 pounds potatoes – I use small red ones, but any boiling potato would do

2-3 Tablespoons cider vinegar

2 Tablespoons dijon mustard

1/2 – 3/4 cup mayonnaise, or to taste

3 ribs celery, chopped

4 hard-boiled eggs*, peeled and chopped

salt to taste

1/3-1/2 cup minced chives

Boil the potatoes until you can pierce them with a knife. Drain and cut into bite size pieces. If you want to be like Grammy you can also peel them. Drizzle the cider vinegar over them and toss, I also add the mustard at this point. Let them cool before mixing in the mayonnaise, celery, hard-boiled eggs, salt and chives. Mix together and either serve immediately or refrigerate.

"Grammy Caldwell's potato salad with lamb and green beans"

Grammy’s potato salad with grilled lamb and wax & string beans

*I use the Julia Child method of hard boiling eggs. Cold water to cover, bring to a boil, turn off for 17 minutes, rinse in ice water for 2 minutes, back to boiling water for 30 seconds, cool again and peel.

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