Garlic is traditionally harvested in midsummer, and the cloves store well (in a cool, dark location) for up to six months. But if you're buying garlic out of season, like in midwinter, the cloves were most likely shipped all the way from China, their transport spewing unnecessary greenhouse gases all the way, and the cloves sprayed with chemicals to keep them from sprouting. Growing garlic plants indoors allows you to harvest your own local garlic greens instead. The greens have a fresh, sprightly flavor, sort of like scallions with a strong garlic overtone; it's a different, fresh flavor that garlic cloves can't match. Here's how to do it:
Start with the castoffs. You can often get a good price on small or shattered garlic bulbs (bulbs that either are totally pulled apart or are just starting to burst because they were left in the field a bit too long) at the farmer's market this time of year, so it's a great time to stock up now for delicious winter eating. Small cloves are fussy to peel but are perfect for planting, as no peeling is required. Store your stash at cool room temperature or in the crisper drawer of the fridge. Or just pick up a bulb or two of organic garlic at the store as needed. Don't use the leftover garlic in your cabinet that's dried up; it's dead and only good for your next batch of soup stock.
Plant your cloves. To grow tasty garlic plants, all you need is a four-inch pot (or a quart yogurt container with some drain holes poked in the bottom), a small bag of organic potting soil, and a saucer or tray to set the pot on to catch drips.
Fill the pot with soil within ½ inch of the top, gently break the garlic bulbs into individual cloves (leave the peel on each one intact, but don’t worry if it splits a little), and push each individual segment, pointy end up, about an inch deep into the soil, planting perhaps 12 cloves close together. Place the pot on the saucer, water well, and put in a sunny spot. Water as needed to keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy.
Harvest your greens. In a week or so, the first green noses will start poking out of your garlic plants. Once the greens are 8 to 10 inches tall (a few more weeks), clip off what you need with scissors, and use in any recipe that calls for garlic or scallions. You will get several cuttings before the cloves stop putting up more sprouts. At that point you can empty the pot into the compost, refill with fresh potting soil, and plant it up with new cloves.
You won't get any new garlic cloves from your indoor garlic plants. To grow a new bulb, the leaves need to stay on the plant and collect sunshine for many months. But you will get a steady supply of greens, especially if you have multiple plants. Plant a second pot about the time you harvest the first cuttings from pot number one, and pot number two should be ready to harvest about the time the first pot is winding down.
Use 'em up. Try minced garlic greens (raw or sautéed) with mashed or baked potatoes instead of chives, chop the meaty bases into stir-fry instead of scallions, or try this delicious pesto recipe:
Garlic Green Pesto
1 cup of garlic greens, chopped (or mix half garlic greens with half parsley or spinach for a milder pesto)
¼ cup hard cheese, grated (Parmesan or other hard cheese)
¼ cup nuts (pine nuts or walnuts)
¼ cup olive oil
Salt to taste
Grind ingredients together in a mini food processor or with a mortar and pestle until you get the texture you prefer. This pesto sauce is yummy tossed with hot whole-grain pasta, or spread on rounds of a good chewy sourdough and toasted under the broiler until hot.
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.