Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Amazing Lilies

Did you realize that onions and garlic are in the lily family? I am constantly surprised by the robustness of the onions. When you pick a head of lettuce, it will keep for a few hours without being chilled. When you pull a carrot, it will keep for a few days on the counter. Yet those marvelous lilies can keep nearly from one harvest to another, at room temperature.

About a month ago I harvested the garlic I planted last October. I used 4 big heads, planting 6 cloves from each, and ended up with 24 healthy and hearty garlic plants. In dry periods during the winter, I watered them a bit. In the spring they were off to the races. They were hardneck varieties, and in May and June gradually unrolled their beautiful seed-stalk, to more than 5 feet high. When the bottom leaves start to yellow and dry out, it's time. I dug them gently, tied them in bundles and hung them in the open air of our back patio, just out of the sun. After 3 weeks, I rubbed off the dirt and trimmed back the roots and stalk. From each of the 4 varieties, I picked the biggest and most beautiful head, to save for seed. Each seed garlic got its own brown paper bag, with its name on it. Then I had 20 heads to use for culinary garlic. I put the paper bags into the garage, a slightly cooler place, but one which does not freeze.

When you harvest garlic at the right stage, and cure it carefully in the open air, you can probably get it to last until next June or July. Isn't that amazing? I learned about garlic from the book "Growing Great Garlic". Garlic, which wants to be in the soil, can hang around for months and months waiting to get there, trusting that one of us humans will make it happen. As months go by, sometimes it grows a tiny beard of roots, just living in hope, waiting for dirt. And occasionally a green shoot will come out of an impatient clove.

Garlic is the queen of lilies when it comes to keeping qualities, but other onion varieties are also good. I recently used the last of the shallots I bought through the food cooperative. I bought them in April. They were grown on an organic Colorado farm. Harvested no later than early November, probably in October. They've stayed healthy in the garage in a cardboard box, enriching soups, salads, and veggie dishes. I only had to throw out two or three of them which were sprouting, out of 10 lbs that I bought.

Next in the list are well-cured dry onions. I've had both yellow and red ones on hand, grown and harvested in October, from a Weld County organic farm. I bought them in April, still good. As the months went by, some of them sprouted. I used the sprouts as scallions, and as much of the bulb as was still crisp and good. The last few went into the compost in June.

Last summer I raised a few red onions from seeds. I harvested most of them, but missed a couple of little ones. This year, those small bulbs shot out a seed stalk probably 5 feet high. They happened to be where I had planted my garlic, and at first I thought they were weird-looking garlic. But no, after I dug them, I noticed they were my stray onions. I quickly packed them back into the wet dirt. They continued to grow and mature seeds. I recently cut the seed head and shook out some black onion seeds. I will plant these next spring. They must like it here.

My other culinary lilies are chive plants. They're up first thing in the spring, blooming with pretty magenta flowers by June, then staying green and good, ready for some snipping, until frost in the fall. The one clump I had three years ago has had children: three more good-size clumps I put in pots, plus more little ones in the garden to give away. The flowers are also good in salads, with a pleasant pretty onion-y flavor; just tear them apart into petals.

I love spring onions, fresh onions with their greens that show up at farmers' markets and in our cooperative in June. By August, now, the onion leaves are dying back, and farmers are harvesting and curing onions for this fall and winter. With some care and attention, and good storage areas, you can have the amazing lilies in any month of the year.

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