Bob on Garlic: Who's the Boss Here Anyway?

March 8, 2017

Since January, the garlic cloves in my kitchen have been shouting, "I want to live!" I've been letting them.

They send forth shoots so bright and green and hopeful, what's a girl to do but toddle out to the white-trash raised bed (a child's wading pool with the bottom cut out) and plunk them in the dirt? What I figure is they might or might not grow into garlic heads. Why not let them try? 

Because you're not supposed to, that's why! It's the wrong time of year. You're supposed to plant them in October and let them overwinter. Them's the rules!

This October, though, the drought had killed everything I'd put out all summer and I couldn't bring myself to add to the body count. Then this winter kept acting more like spring, the garlic wanted to grow, the drought seemed to be over--and anyway, I've been having grave doubts about what you're "supposed to do." Sez who?

I was bagging up sliced turnips and daikons from the garden one Saturday to put in the freezer, thinking with that sanctimonious Little-House-on-the-Prairie satisfaction we gardeners get in such situations: "We'll eat these in soups and stir-fries all winter." Then suddenly it struck me: it was Jan. 21. To what winter, precisely, was I referring? But we'd been sitting out on the porch to slice the vegetables because it was over 70 degrees. That was the source of my confusion and as far as I can tell it's got the natural world a little mixed up, too.

Shortly after that I was telling my friend and fellow gardener, Eloise, that I'd seen one of those Japanese magnolias blooming already. She said, "I bet that was pretty, wasn't it?" At first I was exasperated--the point I'd  been trying to make was it was way too early. Then I realized, well, what did I expect her to do?  Make the flowers go back in? She wasn't their boss any more than I was! 

That's what this column is about: Who's the boss? What are the rules? And this being me, who cannot seem to walk down the garden path without veering wildly off down Social Justice Lane, I am of course now going to tell you a story about a man who used to own a restaurant in town.

I was the local newspaper writer and I had an appointment to interview this man about certain interesting changes he planned to make to his restaurant. But when I got there what I found was not him but an employee I'd seen several times working at the restaurant. This was an affable black guy in a white chef hat who'd always before greeted me with a big friendly smile.

But today he was not smiling and he didn't look happy, and out of the blue he began telling me why. The restaurant owner had been keeping the restaurant closed, presumably while he was making his interesting changes. That left the employee without a job or an income. He'd been looking for work everywhere in town, even the McDonald's, and had found nothing. He was getting desperate. He wanted to work, he explained to me earnestly, he'd much rather work; but if nobody would hire him what choice did he have but to return to a life of crime?

I stood there listening to him pour out his troubles, thinking: why me? Of course, his reasoning seemed perfectly sound. If society didn't want him to be a criminal, why wouldn't it provide him honest labor instead? I'm no good at getting jobs, either--you'd be surprised how few trades a twisted sense of humor and an ability to pinpoint the faults of others with atomic precision qualify a person for--and there have been times I was financially desperate enough that only a disinclination toward incarceration prevented me from knocking over liquor stores myself.

So I could see the black guy's point but what good was that? I didn't have a job to give him. And that's what I tried to explain to him. He was right, the system was wrong, but I wasn't in charge of the system and I couldn't help him. I wasn't the Boss.

He wandered off like Lady Macbeth, making tragic arm motions, and I stood there made miserable by his unhappiness. That's when the man who owned the restaurant finally showed up. He turned his head this way and that, searching, and said:

"Now, where did that n----er go?"


Which should have showed me right there the tenderness of his concern for his worker, but what could I do but  take up the employee's case with him? I repeated what the man had told me and tried to convey to the restaurant owner his frustration and need. 

The restaurant owner shrugged. The black guy was lucky he'd given him any work at all, he said. He had no special training as a cook and: "People don't like to see a n----r around their food."

That incident chilled me. What struck me was that though I sympathized with the employee, I had no power to help him because I wasn't "the Boss." Then the restaurant owner showed up and he kind of was the Boss but he was also kind of a jerk. 

I extrapolated from that our helplessness in an unjust world where there is no logical person we can appeal to for justice, nobody who has the authority and responsibility to fix it, in short, no Boss. We're raised to shout No Fair! to our parents, and then to our teachers, when we perceive injustice, but out in the world as adults we're on our own. We can complain to our elected representatives but a great many are about as reliable as that restaurant owner I've been carrying on about and even the best of them are impermanent. Even the highest of them. We replace our president every four to eight years and then everything starts over bosslessly.

This bosslessness has been highlighted for the past several election cycles by the fact that for eight years almost half the nation dismissed the top boss as illegitimate, I have always suspected for pretty much the same reason as the restaurant owner dismissed the humanity of his employee. Now we have one dismissed as illegitimate by the other half, for reasons way too numerous to get into here--but weren't we talking about the weather?

It's always amused me that the weather is politicized these days when it used to be the only subject you could trust as neutral. People used to talk about it in pleasantries like "Nice out today," and rhetorical questions like, "Will it ever rain?" Now that people are taking sides, if you say a pleasantry like "Seems like it's hotter every summer," you may get in reply my favorite rhetorical question: "What kind of idiot are you?" And possibly a punch in the nose.

I don't like to take sides in Bob's Little Acre! I like to play quietly in the dirt, disturbing no one. But it has struck me that people who deny climate change must not go outside much. In 2012 I was at a community meeting on Sand Mountain where somebody in the audience suggested Dade County build a tornado shelter since--I wish I still had my notes so I could quote this exactly--"The earth has tilted on its axis, placing us directly into Tornado Alley." I'm pretty sure the guy was not citing the correct scientific explanation, but you see what I mean: whatever their politics, the weather has a way of making people take notice.


A tornado shelter on the Alabama side of Sand Mountain I photographed recently for an upcoming Planet feature.

Time is out of joint! January is the new March! April is the new July! The armadillo is the new opossum! Our environment has gone haywire--and we have an administration that seems intent on dismantling the EPA?

Well! I'm not here to rant about politics. I am simply trying to grow a garden. And it's ironic I of all people should be complaining about this new lack of rules when I've always dismissed the ones we had as lies, advertising or male answer syndrome.

Some of that is sheer bravado, of course. The writer Dorothy Gilman, whom I much admire, wrote once that she hated being bossed around so much that when a can of asparagus directed her to "OPEN THIS END," she turned it around and opened it from the other. Meanwhile I'm married to somebody who is so rule-abiding he is always going up to rangers and saying, "I imagine you want us to put our dogs on a leash and not drink this beer we have in our ice chest, right?" 

I'm somewhere in the middle. I laugh myself sick at recipes that tell me I may use "one leaf of basil" but am equally irritated at "season to taste." What the hell does that mean? Nobody wants to live in a police state but a few guidelines would be helpful here. 

But we're living in a "new normal" now, in the garden as elsewhere, and I think the best we can do in both is think for ourselves, see what works and make things better where it seems possible. (And maybe that tornado shelter ain't a bad idea, either.)

But back to that garlic! I looked it up and sure enough, what the UGA Extension Service had to say was: "Late September through November is the time to plant garlic in Georgia." 

But God knows when they wrote that--probably back when fall was the rainy season. Anyway, they're not the boss of me!

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