It’s very satisfying to survey one’s harvested crops as they dry before storage, when the fruit of a summer’s labor is spread out for all to see. We have a screened porch that is a perfect spot for onions to dry and we watched as their green tops dried and shriveled, admiring them as we passed by. As soon as there was no green showing in the tops, we cut them, leaving an inch or so, and let them sit a few days longer before placing the onions in mesh bags to be hung in the root cellar. You get a lot of bang for the buck with onion sets: a pound or so can result in a hundredfold return, bags and bags of amber-shined globes.

Potatoes will replace the onions soon, spread in the same space but covered by old sheets as they dry, and once dry they will be layered between sheets of newspaper in cardboard boxes and join the onions in the root cellar. We now don’t have to think about onions or potatoes anymore, just eat them and enjoy the fruits of our summer labor, but garlic is a different story. A couple of months after harvest, garlic will be going back in the ground. Looking over the fat bulbs as they hang drying in the woodshed, I’m already calculating which ones will be stored, like the onions, in mesh bags and which will be selected as next year’s seed.

When we dug garlic this year, the soil was a bit muddy, but we prefer to dry it without washing the dirt away, lest we increase the risk of mold or other disease, so once dry, it’ll need some cleaning. When it’s finally dry, we cut the necks to about an inch above the head with garden shears and trim the roots with garden scissors. Then we brush the dirt away from the outer wrappers as well as any remaining in the trimmed roots, using old toothbrushes. As we clean, we decide which heads will be set aside for next year’s crop, selecting the heads with the biggest cloves and checking them for signs of mold. Thus far we’ve been very fortunate to be able to use our own planting stock from year to year, but should we see signs of disease, we’d have to purchase seed garlic for the next year. By being able to select for large cloves, our garlic heads have grown very large, with most cloves double the size of ordinary ones.

As it turns out, the largest heads and cloves tend to dry out more quickly and not store as long as the smaller bulbs, so it makes sense to choose them for planting and save the slightly smaller ones for the table. Once we’ve made our selection, we hang the seed stock up in the cellar and keep the heads whole until it’s time to plant. It’s important to crack open the heads for planting as carefully as you can so as not to injure the cloves. If you examine an individual clove, you’ll notice the flat crusty plate at the bottom — the part you slice off when chopping them for cooking. This plate is actually the plant’s true stem, and both roots and leaves initiate from it. Damage to this stem is to be avoided lest you impede the clove’s growth or create an entry point for infection. The skin of the plant is not as important: if you end up with exposed cloves, they’ll be fine for planting.

About three weeks before the ground freezes you’ll want to grab your seed garlic and separate it into cloves, preparatory to planting. Garlic isn’t a heavy nitrogen feeder — in general, good garden soil is good garlic soil. But you may want to work a bit of compost or composted manure into your garlic bed at planting to give your plants the loose, loamy soil they prefer. Plant your cloves with the root plate down, about three inches deep and six inches apart, in rows that are 10 to 12 inches apart. Add a nice blanket of straw or chopped leaf mulch atop the bed to protect the plants from freezing or drying, or from being heaved out of the ground by heavy frosts.

Under that nice blanket of mulch, sight unseen, the garlic you planted will get busy producing a good root system. Occasionally, if there is a prolonged warm spell in autumn, garlic will send up shoots, but hardneck garlic, the type we grow here, is well adapted to irregular winter weather. Leaves that have sprouted will stop growing when truly cold weather hits and stay dormant until spring arrives, then will continue their growth.