“No, it’s not the protected Yorktown Onion!” I promised a friend who shook her head and looked at me incredulously stuttering, “I can’t accept that.” Why not? Are you a Nosferatu? Even if she were a vampire, elephant garlic isn’t a true garlic, so I am not sure it would have the same deleterious effect. The large, purple pompom bloom at the top of the three to four foot long stalk does resemble the famous, and protected Yorktown Onion, but its beautiful flowering sphere also makes it the perfect plant for covert backyard and front yard food growing, or overt growing as the Food Not Lawns movement is taking off!
Our elephant garlic hails from a batch of organic cloves from Territorial Seed Company that I bought and planted here six years ago. And while the initial elephant cloves were mild, as a traditional trait of elephant garlic, our Toano modified garlic has become hotter over the years. It is probably the biodynamic and organic compost that has increased its virility, just guessing, but something has turned the heat up in our home grown variety.
Collins planted this current bed with me back in December, and we were really excited to dig a portion of it up and sent it over to the fabulous foodies at the Virginia Gourmet shop. Joy and Lenny, the shop owners and kindred spirits when it comes to promoting Virginia’s rich heritage of farming, embody a rare and special vision of the possibilities of the local food movement. The variety of Virginia grown products in their sophisticated store brought tears to my eyes and made me realize how far the ideals of supporting local farmers has come over the past decade. Just to have the homemade vinegars, like Norton, that have the aroma and deep red hallmarks of a fine Cabernet swirling from the tasting spoon was heaven. And to have a selection of sizes – two pound wheels to small sections – of the handmade Gouda from Our Ladies of the Angel’s Monastery in Crozet in the same room… what a glorious experience.
Joy and Lenny’s vision for their gourmet shop/cafe includes expanding into a beautiful canning facility right next store! What a testimony to the changing times we find ourselves in to stand in the new canning room with shiny, 40 pound drums under soaring ceilings and sunny windows… as ten years ago this same spot was a swanky women’s boutique. I could write a whole essay on that image alone, but this is a blog and there’s a fall garden to plant!
The new canning facility will be welcome, as I gave up years ago on trying to register for a canning and certification class that was never held by the state at the University of Virginia. The only community canning center in the area back then was in Hanover County, and their access was limited. Some of Virginia Gourmet’s sparkly, new canning equipment was purchased with a grant from James City County, Joy said. And yes, if your garden blows up and you need to capture that harvest you will be able to take it to them and, with a little guidance, even create your own label!
The Virginia Gourmet will be featuring samples from everything we grow here, from garlic, herbs, pumpkins, Muscadine grapes, kale (five varieties), and a slew of fun, heritage products you will never find in a local grocery store as they are not tough enough for tractors to roll over them in fields and trucks to haul them the average 1300 miles to market.
Check back often to find out what we’re up to next! Read more below on why garlic is one of our top five crops to grow!
WHY ELEPHANT GARLIC IS IN OUR TOP FIVE CROPS TO GROW
If I could pick my top five things to grow in Virginia or anywhere, they would be kale, mesclun greens, buckwheat, sunflowers and garlic. These are in no particular order, as they all serve a really important and different part in our diets and gardens.
Our favorite kale is Red Russian and I have written about growing this here in Mindfully Growing Greens. We’ve grown five different varieties of kale here and have found the Red Russian to out perform all of the other ones, even though the curly or purple varieties are fun and interesting. Kale is the new beef, and you cannot grow too much. If you do, jam it into a smoothie a few times a day.
Our favorite mixed salad greens are Johnny’s Encore Salad Mix. They are easy to grow, fill a bed tightly, and last longer than you’d think.
I LOVE buckwheat and think it is the happiest most versatile plant ever. The seeds are beautiful geometric shapes and can be ground into flower, but the true glory of the plant is that it grows to maturity so quickly, 30 days, it out competes the weeds, produces beautiful blooms for beneficial insects and comes out easily to go into the compost pile (unlike other compost crops). You can also get this organic seed from Johnny’s along with organic buckwheat seed for sprouts.
Sunflowers are magical, period. If you have never grown an eight foot Mammoth Sunflower from a stripped seed the size of your pinky nail, you have an item to add to your bucket list. The giant, heavy heads will give you lots of seed for eating, if you are able to monitor the head for the moment the stripe appears on the seed and harvest it before every bird within a half mile does. Good luck. The heads are sometimes enormous (I’ve grown heads of 14 inches wide) and heavy, but do keep very well until the next season for planting, if you don’t want to eat them. Store them in a paper bag, and if there is a remote chance of mice within a half mile, go ahead and put the bag into something the mice cannot tear into – because they will.
If you have little time to grow anything, but want to feel like you are growing food, medicine, flowers, something to attract beneficial insects, something that would sell at the farmer’s market and finally, something that produces a three foot stalk for the compost pile, then Elephant Garlic is your plant. You can sneak cloves into your front lawn gardens in the fall and no one will be the wiser at the homeowner’s association that you are growing FOOD in your flower beds. Garlic cloves can be planted six inches apart from each other in northern areas, in October and in the South it’s planted from November through January. They do need fertile, rich soil to get a good start and a nice fertilizer in the spring. But really, if you wanted to stick the cloves into some compost and walk away for six to eight months, you could. I know, because I have. How low maintenance is that?