The elephant garlic plants were how I found my great-grandfather’s garden. In the same way daffodils blooming among ancient cedars tip us to long-erased homesteads, elephant garlic does the same for old gardens. Years after the gardener is gone, they thrive on neglect, naturalizing and dividing, marking an old garden plot to any who care to read the signs.
My elderly neighbor was a boy in the 1920s but he remembered my great-grandfather and his elephant garlic. The garlic pods were the size of softballs, or that’s how he remembered them. And that garden had grown especially sweet watermelons.
Curious, I set out one morning to find Pa’s garden, plunging my shovel into the red clay near the garlic, looking for I don’t know what. Then, a few feet from the plants, the red clay abruptly turned into rich black dirt, soil that had been fed for decades with cow and chicken manure and then left fallow for 70 years. Following the line where the red clay turned into black soil, I could recreate the shape of the old garden, and in the process I discovered the inheritance that had been left to me.
Before we had moved out to my family’s abandoned old home place in North Pulaski County with its falling-down 19th century log house, I had not the least interest in gardening. But as I uncovered his old garden plot, all my dormant peasant genes awoke, and over the years I would become almost a captive of the place, like a serf tied to the land.
Pa’s gift of that plot of foot-deep heavily manured soil pretty much guaranteed success to whoever planted there. Everything begins and ends with the soil. Take care of the soil, spend your time on the soil and everything else pretty much takes care of itself. That’s the secret of a good garden.
This is elephant garlic soup time at our place. For about four weeks in the spring the elephant garlic plants, which are actually part of the leek family, can be used as the main ingredient in leek soup. They impart a mild garlic flavor to the soup that is absent with leeks. By the middle of May the plants will be too tough and will be setting their garlic pods underground for harvest in July. I am always reminded that when I am eating this garlic, I am eating something that has lived continuously for tens of thousands of years. The garlic plant really never dies; it just keeps dividing underground, so that any clove is simply the latest manifestation of that original plant.
As we move through these next few months, the menu changes at my house as different fruits and vegetables come on. Right now the garlic plants provide soup; the lettuces, spinach and pansy flowers make beautiful salads, and there’s spearmint for my bourbon. Soon we’ll have snow peas in the salads mixed with fresh raspberries, and when the basil, red bell peppers and tomatoes are in, there will be pesto tortes — wonderful layers of pesto, peppers, tomatoes, provolone cheese and pecans. The warm weather will bring Yukon Gold potatoes, Nickel French filet beans, Kentucky Wonder pole beans, Ambrosia cantaloupes, Tom Watson watermelons, Kandy Korn, a plethora of tomatoes and peppers and just before the first frost, sweet potatoes. This weekend I will finally plant about 300 tomatoes and peppers, still wary of a late frost. And I will remember my great-grandfather and thank my ancestors for my inheritance of their rich soil.
Max Brantley is on vacation. Times publisher Alan Leveritt, whose tomatoes are famous throughout the county, is taking his place this week.