Garlic didn’t get much attention in our house when I was growing up. We had a big garden, and my mother cooked for us nearly every day. But the pungent perfume of garlic didn’t waft into my senses, except when it was mixed with salt and shaken through the holes of an herb jar onto buttered bread to make toast to accompany a spaghetti dinner.
Most Mediterranean food was pretty far from our Norwegian ways, up on the northern plains. My early days were spent on a farm, where I’d rustle through the corn stalks of my mother’s garden or catch waves in the tall wheat of my father’s fields. Dinners were country comfort food and included only the most familiar of garden vegetables.
When I moved to Seattle after college, I was delighted by the mild weather and determined to grow a garden, hopefully to branch out of my meat-and-potato ways. Nobody I came to know in Seattle bothered to grow potatoes, which, for many years, was new by me.
Instead, the gardeners in my first P-Patch were into greens: dinner-plate-sized leaves with vibrant red stems, or crinkly blue-green towers of foliage as thick as chewy fruit leather.
I tried chard and kale, along with easy peas. And I learned the word allium, the family of onions and garlic.
The delightful Egyptian walking onion was my first success. A diminutive perennial, it would form a head of nodding bulbils atop its greenery. When weighty enough, the plant would stoop to the nearby soil and one bulbil would take root, becoming next season’s plant. In this way, the Egyptian walking onion moved slowly through the garden. The harvest was not large, but the marble-sized topsets or shallot-sized bulbs added a zing to the lightly stewed kale with which I was growing familiar.
Curious about the genus’s spicier relations, I vowed to expand my skills to year-round gardening and grow garlic. This was a process unthinkable in a North Dakota garden, having a plant that goes into the bed in autumn and peeks through the soil just as the days lengthen in January. In January, the prairie was under drifts of snow, the ground as hard as an ice-skate blade. Even people who passed away there in the late fall didn’t get planted until spring thaw.
But in Seattle’s mild climate, any idiot can grow garlic, as I soon proved.
Watching its spring progression became one of my garden delights. I’d chart the plant’s maturity proudly. But one year, a few seasons into my garlic schooling, I noticed curling seed-heads on some of the crop. Mysterious, because they weren’t on all of the plants. Was this “walking” garlic?
Some garden experiments ended in a wimpy plant prematurely “bolting” (going to seed), so I initially chalked it up to a mistake in timing or location or fertilization. And I did what I’d do to other plants to delay the end game and perhaps get a little food out of the failures: I cut off the seed head and tossed it in the compost.
However, one spring I spied a fellow P-Patcher sporting a bracelet of those curly seed-heads on one arm. Then I saw that they went into the harvest basket with the strappy dinosaur kale leaves. Hmm. A bit of research and I realized that I was throwing away a del- icacy. These “garlic scapes” (found only on “hard neck” varieties) seemed to be attracting the attention of market gardeners and food writers as well, or was it that I was just now taking notice?
Whatever. I couldn’t wait until the next season. I bought a batch at the farmers market, took them home, and … what? Stir-fry? Roast? Steam? From tough to stringy to soggy, their joys eluded me through a number of meals. But in time I figured them out and I began to anticipate the coming of the scapes.
And as with the rest of my garden education, I eventually found ways to feature this homegrown treasure. Scape pesto anyone? It will make your senses pay attention.
Bill Thorness has been a writer and gardener since 1985.