Ready for the summer to heat up a bit? Then fasten your seat belts and put your tray tables in their upright position: it’s garlic time. From spicy hot to nutty mellow, big flavor sprouts from these little cloves. If you’re growing garlic for the first time, here are a few hints for harvest.
Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) throws a curled, flowering stem called a “scape” that, if left on the plant, eventually turns woody (Softneck garlic doesn’t normally do this). From this flower small bulbils will form that will grow to small bulbs in one to three seasons, depending on the variety.
If you want big bulbs, scapes have to be cut from the plant. Snip the scape off after it has made loops, but don’t toss them out – take them inside for stir fry. If you’re interested in propagating your garlic from bulbils, leave them in place until harvest time and then dry them separately from the bulbs.
Once garlic throws scapes and the tips begin browning back, stop watering it. Allow leaves to die down, and harvest when the lower leaves are half to three-quarters brown. Use a flat shovel to loosen the ground near the bulbs and then lift the plants by hand.
Check the first bulbs you pull before harvesting the whole lot by gently brushing away the dirt to look for maturity. They should have reached a good size and be well wrapped in skin. To help them dry quickly, hang them upside down to cure in a dry, warm, dark, airy place for a few weeks, then cut stalks one inch above the bulb for storage.
Early varieties should be ready in mid to late July, with mid and late season ready through late August. But these are very general guidelines. For more information, check out The Complete Book of Garlic by Ted Jordan Meredith (Timber Press, $39.95), a tome serious gardeners should add to their library.
If you can’t wait until the leaves die back, consider pulling up a couple of bulbs for delightful dining. Before the bulb forms cloves, the base is just like a large scallion; soft and solid with a garlicky flavor. Slice and use as you would an onion for stir fry.
Garlic comes in dozens of delicious varieties, so shop your local farmer’s markets for new types to try. Some are mellow and good keepers; others are spicy-hot and best used soon. Make note of the types you liked, then get certified disease free cloves for planting in the fall from places such as Filaree Farm, The Garlic Store, or Gourmet Garlic Gardens. Because of the possibility of chemical storage treatments or disease, don’t plant garlic you buy at the grocer’s.