Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.
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, Now is the time for you to plan your harvest.
Hardneck garlic throws a curled, flowering stem called a “scape” that, if left on the plant, eventually turns woody. Softneck garlic doesn’t normally do this.
Now, if you want big bulbs, those scapes have to be cut from the plant, snipped off before it makes a loop. But don’t worry if you missed cutting them from the plant and it bloomed – from this flower small bulbils will form that grow into small bulbs in a couple of seasons. If you’re interested in propagating your garlic from these 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. Let the leaves die down and harvest when the lower leaves are half to three-quarters brown. Use a flat shovel or garden fork 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 garlic ready through late August.
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.
Shop now for best selection – these stores often sell out their garlic, which will be shipped to you in September for planting. Because of the possibility of chemical storage treatments or disease, don’t plant garlic you buy at the grocer’s.
If you’re a rookie gardener, be aware that garlic varieties offer subtle to strong flavor. Softneck varieties – those with soft center stalks – are tolerant of common mistakes and easy for beginners to grow. The bulbs are larger than hardneck varieties and have more cloves. They store well, sometimes for up to 9 months.
Hardneck varieties have a center stalk that is stiffened and woody. They have fewer cloves and are larger and easier to peel than softnecks. Both types offer great flavor. A word of caution on garlic, however. Depending on the garlic, one bulb will provide many cloves for planting, and you’ll get plenty of garlic bulbs if you plant them all. This is a lesson I learned due to my enthusiasm for trying nine varieties of garlic. Silly me, I planted every clove from every bulb, and now I have enough garlic to feed a Tuscan village.
Eating all of it is out of the question, and now I’m assessing my friends and family to see if they will take some off of my hands. Every vegetable gardener goes through this. Each season brings a bounty of one crop or another, and people who are normally friends or acquaintances suddenly become targets for excess produce giveaways.
We have a wonderful organization here called Community Food Share, which takes excess produce from gardeners and gives it to those who need it. Many food banks usually welcome most produce from local gardens provided that it is fresh, undamaged, and clean. Take your extras to them and let others share in the bounty of the harvest.