Wild Garlic

MARCH, BoYD COMMUNITY CENTER, PiTTsBuRGH

Just on the other side of the pool parking lot, with no street crossings, is the town community center. I've never made much use of this kind of amenity in other locations, but this community center is particularly enticing because it houses a library and offers classes and camps that the kids and I all enjoy. I go to yoga classes there once a week, and throughout the year the girls are typically involved in at least one weekly activity. Soccer practice begins there late in March.

The community center has a playground as well as some weedy woodlands. Its grounds have become part of the free-range neighborhood that the kids can roam. The building itself was once an elementary school, and though it will be renovated within the next couple of years, it still contains much of what any good walking neighborhood needs: reading material, a small deli service, and lots of kid-friendly space and activities. Oddly enough, though we live in the suburbs in a neighborhood with no sidewalks, this community center makes our lives here much more walkable, for the kids especially, than any house we scouted in the more urban neighborhoods with sidewalks and that were closer to our jobs.

Our first fall here, when the house was still sparsely furnished and money was tight from moving, I hosted a bulb-planting party to liven up a weedy flower bed at the community center for my older daughter's sixth birthday in late September. We got permission from the center director, and I bought a mix of tulips, daffodils, and crocuses. As it turned out, the day was scorching and the ground so hard that I was forced to use my adult muscles for every hole. Even then, I could hardly penetrate the top two inches of soil. Wonderful as the idea was in theory, I won't say it was the most exciting birthday party ever—the kids perceived that the celebration was only thinly disguised forced labor. Still, we enjoy the benefits of the party every spring, the early days of it, when we walk to the community center and enjoy the flowers that have come up. My daughters and I have come to think of this flower bed as our own, though there have been times when ownership might not be something to be proud of—as when it is thick with wild garlic.

Wild garlic is a lovely, useful weed. I have used it in cooking, mostly because I don't cook with chives often enough to justify buying them. I remember as a child getting great satisfaction from pulling up wild garlic to see that little round stinky onion at its base. Apparently in France it is left to grow in the wheat fields because it adds flavor to the flour. But I have to say, in the bulb garden this spring, it was very much out of place. I began with the intention of pulling them all up and ended with a very dissatisfying hand-mowing experience, because the heavy clay soil wouldn't release the root bulb.

Chives, wild onion, garlic, and wild garlic — all are narrow-leaved, strong-flavored, low-maintenance plants that can contribute to early spring nutrition. These herbs are typically best fresh — cooking breaks down their flavor fairly quickly, so they are best added just before serving, rather than to the frying pan to help flavor the heating oil. I'm certain that good cooks could distinguish more clearly among them in terms of usage, but one problem with making distinctions is that it limits one's ability to be opportunistic about them. Whenever one of these weeds is available, I try to get nearby innocent children to taste, knowing that they'll mostly just say some variation of "Eeew!" and move quickly away from me before I get any more big ideas. Watching their reaction, though, always reminds me of the first time I tasted wild onion in my yard as a child. The power of that taste was exciting in some strange way, and I tried them with some regularity, even though I didn't willingly eat cultivated onions until years later, and didn't actively like them until my early twenties.

Mixed in with the spring bulbs, though, the wild garlic is simply a nuisance. Partly I consider it a nuisance because it is so clearly weedy and makes the garden look untidy. Also, it is difficult to pull without pulling crocuses accidentally. I struggle with it, knowing that this wild garlic is simply joining in the spring bulb party, the rowdy black sheep in the lovely lily family.

In fact, I have a patch of wild garlic in my own garden, but it remains, for whatever reason, simply a patch that grows denser if I ignore it but doesn't take over. The wild garlic in the public garden is a problem partly because it is thin, long, and inconsistent, much like a windblown balding man with a comb-over. The public garden itself raises issues, too. For one, I know even less about the soil history there, so I couldn't necessarily recommend culinary uses. For two, even if I can personally tolerate certain weeds, other users of the community center may think it makes the building look unloved. As noted, I also have a sense that weedy areas invite more littering. With our community center trying to raise money for a new building, I'd like to think that pulling wild garlic is one way to help.

Despite the kids' cooking classes inside, this garden is not an herb garden, at least not yet. Although chives, with their pom-pom purple flowers, are probably considered acceptable front-yard vegetables, I don't think wild garlic is. One of the implied rules I have heard for gardening is that vegetables are inappropriate in the front yard. As Elizabeth Kolbert notes, "A lawn may be pleasing to look at, or provide the children with a place to play, or offer the dog room to relieve himself, but it has no productive value." Fritz Haeg, an artist and renegade vegetable gardener, made New York Times headlines by breaking this rule in several cities, and he now has a book on the experience, Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn. The rule about front-yard vegetables may be unwritten, but breaking it makes headlines. This wild garlic is effectively growing in someone else's front yard, and I wasn't sure I wanted to start an "attack on the front lawn" with my first battle being at the community center.

Another unwritten rule is the taboo against picking vegetables in public places, even when it isn't stealing. I realized this particularly while Emily was helping me weed the community center bed. When she got a wild garlic with its bulb, she handed it to me proudly telling me I could take it home and cook with it. I was very happy to hold it, but after a few minutes I felt strange about the possibility of being observed by the many people wandering around for classes and soccer games. Ultimately, I ended up putting Emily's harvest down in the grass, partly out of self-consciousness and partly realizing that I didn't have any ideas for cooking them at the moment. As much as I believe in the concept of wild edibles, I'm not willing to harvest on public property.

The one time recently that I made an exception was on a camping trip, and I wanted to impress the Chatham University students I taught in a one-credit backpacking course with my camp-stove cooking. As we hiked in, Emily picked all the roadside garlic mustard she could carry, proudly helping me make my own dinner en route. The students didn't notice at all, as they were locked into their own cold, wet misery of camping in rainy 45-degree weather. I ate well anyway:

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