Although my true garden love is the heirloom tomato, my favorite crop to grow is actually garlic. Unbelievably easy — fairly little effort with huge return: you plant the cloves in the fall (in my growing zone 6a), mulch them over and leave everything be until March. A little spring watering, regular fertilizer, and by July, you have an 8-month store of garlic.
The patient among you have read me prattle on about the early, warm spring and generally outstanding growing weather. It’s true: most crops are maturing early, including garlic, which is an early-July kind of vegetable in the home garden. This year, however, I pulled the entire crop — some 50 bulbs — by June 15th. And they’re beautiful, just beautiful.
I will post later this summer about planting and growing your own garlic, so even though I’m starting at the end here by talking about harvesting garlic, you’ll know what to expect next year should you make the very wise decision to grow your own garlic.
As I mentioned, garlic is very easy to grow and requires little maintenance other than fertilizing. Late in the spring, the tops of the garlic plants begin to yellow and brown. Scapes also emerge at this time.
Scapes are a delicacy, which, when chopped like scallions and added to dishes, contribute a light roasted-garlic flavor. Let the scapes grow to 12-18″, and then cut them off near the base. Even if you don’t intend to cook with them, they have to be removed. Scapes produce a flowering seedhead, which would draw too much energy from the bulb if allowed to bloom.
When the top 1/3 of the garlic plant is yellowing/browning, begin checking the bulbs on a regular basis. Scratch away the dirt around one stem to reveal the top of bulb. Tight, smooth, slightly shiny skin indicates the bulb can stay put for a little while longer (replace the dirt you scratched away); dry, papery skin means the bulb is ready to pull.
Pulling garlic is usually referred to as lifting, because that’s exactly what you do: dig from underneath and lift the bulb and surrounding dirt. Although practically impenetrable in its cured, ready-for-storage-or-market state, a freshly harvested garlic bulb is actually quite fragile. It’s large root system keeps the bulb firmly anchored in the ground, and even the heartiest yank will likely rip and strip off the outer circle of stem skin or, more likely, crack the bulb rather than free it (among the three — roots, bulb and stem — the bulb is by far the weakest structure of the garlic plant).
To lift garlic, use a hand shovel to slice vertically into the soil in a 3″ radius around the bulb — similar to digging a hole, only without removing the dirt; just make the cuts. Go as deeply as you can with each slice. (If your shovel has an offset or tilted blade relative to the handle, make sure the blade is going straight down into the earth. If you go in at an angle, you could slice right through the bulb.)
Reinsert the blade deeply into an existing cut and press down on the handle (away from the garlic stem) in a sort of prying motion. Don’t force it; just apply gentle pressure. Wedge the blade further into the soil, taking care to be well below the bulb, and gently pry upwards again. When bulb and surrounding dirt begin to loosen and shift, grasp the stem with your other hand and tug gently while you continue prying with the shovel, until the bulb is released from the earth (often clumped with dirt — that’s a good thing).
If your rows are far enough apart — meaning you can walk between them with ease — you can use a large shovel to (more quickly) dig beneath the row of bulbs and lift each with the blade.
In addition to protecting the delicate bulbs, this deep digging and lifting keeps stress off the stem, which tends to want to crack at the joint with the bulb. These structures — the skin encasing the bulb and stem, and the stem itself — must be intact for proper curing and long-term storage.
I harvested one of the three varieties of garlic I’m growing this year (“Music”) last Wednesday, with the intent to pull the remainder on Friday. However, by Thursday evening, the other two varieties looked ready as well. In fact, by digging around and inspecting the skin on the base of one of the stems, it was apparent that another day in the soil could be one day too long.
Garlic bulbs rely on the maddeningly-difficult-to-peel papery skin for protection. When garlic is in the ground too long, that skin begins to break down, leaving the individual cloves exposed to the elements. Garlic bulbs with breaches in their skin will not store well. They’re perfectly fine to consume, but they should be set aside for immediate use rather than curing.
This interesting guy on the left had not one but five scapes (flower shoots), all wrapped snuggly around the central stalk (the #1 scape above). In the hundreds and hundreds of garlic bulbs I’ve grown, I’ve never seen this before. Which just goes to show that there is always, always something new to be learned in the garden.
I haven’t broken open the bulb yet to see what’s going on, but I’m guessing that this is a Purple Rocambole from last year, which grew and then died back without my notice, hanging around underground for a year until this spring’s warm weather triggered a regrowth. The mature cloves inside apparently went ahead and each did their thang, despite still being attached to each other by stem and roots.
These garlic varieties are impossible (for me) to distinguish by sight alone, so each gets tied with its own color of string. The dark ties indicate particularly well-formed bulbs, which will be set aside for the 2013 crop or shared with friends once cured.
The garlic harvest always puts me in a celebratory mood, the successful culmination of 8 months of waiting and watering and hovering and crossed-fingers.