Grow Deep Roots With Your Kids. Grow Garlic!
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
by Jere Folgert
"Have you ever grown your own food before?" I asked Jake, 10, at a farmers market in Bozeman, Montana. It was Saturday morning, and he seemed a little shy as he moved his head from left to right. He whispered no. But just two weeks later, Jake planted his first garlic cloves, proudly smiling at his dad. He planted two rows of garlic with only a bit of help.
Jake has been visiting our GroEat Garlic Farm on a regular basis. And since planting his first garlic cloves, Jake started a garden with his dad and mom and they now plant about 50 cloves each fall. He has been putting what he learned at our farm, like soil preparation, and sorting the garlic cloves by size before planting - into practice. Although he certainly enjoys harvesting his garlic in the summer, he has also discovered the joy of sharing his garden harvest with others, from hardneck German Extra Hardy garlic for his teachers at school, to the hot and zingy Georgian Fire for his friends who own a local restaurant.
As a father of identical twin boys, I've witnessed many scenes of joy and happiness as I watched (and giggled) as my boys play in the dirt. At 18-months old, they helped plant garlic cloves (with a little help of course) and nine months later they discovered the joy and love of harvesting garlic, and moving the bounty into a shed for curing. Whether it's a 10-year-old discovering a love of planting garlic, or a 2+ year-old delighting in harvesting his first bulb of garlic, each one reminds me of the value of teaching kids to plant, grow, water, and harvest food from a young age. With my two boys, I've found that having them help me with simple tasks, like scooping out dirt to make a hole for a clove, or snapping off a garlic scape, has sparked an interest in gardening and how things grow - in addition to getting them to expand their toddler fine motor skills.
Gardening is not easy. Weather, bugs, unforseen plant diseases, weeds and the unexpected hail storm, can cast a shadow of doubts on the entire endeavor. Gardening can be messy, as little hands and feet fling soil and worms everywhere. After it rains, mud sticks to kids like glue. Preparing a soil test, amending soil, adding compost and organic fertilizer requires patience. That is why it helps to start when you've got some time, like when you're looking for a new outdoor activity.
It is said that there are no happier folks than plant lovers and none more generous than those who garden. Watching something grow is good for our mind. It helps us understand the cycle of life. By gardening and growing food, we learn to be an observer in all seasons. Every day, our garden has something new and wonderful to show us. The truth is, it's way more than that. It's a way to connect with our kids and to teach kids important and vital skills, such as biology, horticulture, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. It summons kids to establish links to the broader world by asking, "Where does our food come from?" and "What is the history of garlic?" Growing garlic (and other foods for that matter) allow them to synthesize what they are learning in school --using new conditions and factors.
Weeding, watering, and watching the weather are all frequent tasks in gardening and growing garlic. They also test the skills of a young gardener. "It's time to harvest the garlic now, right?" said Jake as he squats down and shows his dad the bottom four yellowing leaves of the garlic plant. "Dad, each leaf on this plant is linked to a papery-skin layer around the bulb that's growing underground; the lower leaves are the outside layer. If we wait too long, the cloves will start to come apart!" After a garlic harvest Jake said "We need to set aside 10 bulbs of garlic, right". We were calculating how many cloves there were in each bulb and how many cloves we would plant this fall. So he used his knowledge of mathematics.
One of the more amazing aspects of plants, as compared to animals or insects, is that they are stuck in the dirt, and cannot run away from or hide from predators. Some plants such as raspberries and blackberries have developed sharp spears. These plants provide solutions to their problems. Unlike animals, that have to move around to find their food, plants remain in place, getting all the energy needed to survive from the sun and soil. Rooted to the ground meant they were constrained, yet they have adapted their bodies to resist predation. Asking kids to imagine, for a moment or two, to be a plant, helps them learn and understand how difficult it would be to stay alive in a hostile environment, without the ability to move. I ask kids to imagine being surrounded by insects, predators, and diseases of all kind, unable to escape from them. How would you survive if you could? The only way to survive would be to become virtually indestructible. Some kids use their imagination to the extreme, talking about spewing poisons or launching plant missiles. In reality, to counteract the problems associated with predation, plants have evolved in unique and interesting ways, developing solutions very different from the animal world. When raw garlic cloves are chewed on by a predator, crushed, or chopped, true biological warfare begins. Garlic creates an enzyme known as alliinase. Alliinase catalyzes the formation of sulfenic acids from L-cysteine sulfoxides. Sulfenic acids spontaneously react with each other to form unstable compounds called thiosulfinates. Kids learn about chemistry and plant's amazing abilities to protect themselves.
Growing garlic also brings science concepts to life. Take a soil sample, for example. At a spring gathering, Jake and a friend wanted to determine what nutrients their soil was lacking. Jake remembered something important from last year's garlic crop. That garlic is a heavy feeder and needs nitrogen -- along with sulphur compounds. Jake grabbed his favorite garden trowel and collected multiple samples by pushing the blade into the soil. He cut out multiple triangular wedges of soil and set them aside. My kids went rogue and started tossing the dirt upward, laughing as it rained down on their heads. We helped Jake collect and send his soil samples off to a lab. It was a perfect opportunity for him, and us to learn the science behind the soil test and what he would need to add to the soil to make it just right for the next crop of garlic.
Beyond the practical skills, growing garlic builds character. It encourages kids to work with the soil, their parents, and other partners to produce the final results, and boost their confidence -- as they take a lead role in planting, weeding and harvesting. Growing garlic also encourages them to understand the shelf life of foods and how to prepare storage conditions to reduce food waste. Jake's parents reported that he was so excited about this year's garlic harvest, he prepared numerous delicious dishes (which included garlic) and his garlic-infused cooking has been part of a family-cooking rotation ever since. He even made Creamy Garlic Fudge (see recipe here)
Although Garlic adds wonderful aroma and deeply savory flavor to cooking, and garlic has been widely recognized for its health benefits, possibly the best part of growing garlic with kids, isn't the garlic itself. It's the memories and connections you make together in the garden and kitchen.
Jere Folgert is the owner of GroEat Garlic Farm in Bozeman, Montana. GroEat Farm is a small, sustainable family farm located in the beautiful Hyalite Foothills, in the shadows of the Gallatin Mountain Range. The hardneck varieties that they grow on their farm flourish, due to the combination of the cold winters, temperate summers, moist spring, and the dynamic alluvial soils, washed down from the Gallatin Range.