I covered the basics of growing garlic back in ‘09, but there is more to discuss, particularly the details of harvesting, curing and storing garlic. Last weekend, when a group of experienced organic gardeners visited my garden, one lady confessed that she had been throwing her garlic scapes in her compost . Another said her bulbs went moldy, but then she had never before heard of curing garlic. My intention here is to clarify how to handle garden garlic that’s reached the home stretch. Get it right, and your home grown garlic will store for six months or more.
Harvesting Garlic Scapes
In early summer, cold-hardy hard-necked varieties of garlic produce curled garlic scapes, which are immature flower buds on succulent stems. (The soft-necked "artichoke" varieties grown in many mild winter climates don’t produce scapes.) When gathered just as they make a full curl, but before they push up vertically, garlic scapes are a delicious big-flavor vegetable that will keep in the refrigerator more than a week. Removing the scape also can increase bulb size by as much as 30%, because the plants don’t waste energy developing flowers.
In cooking, garlic scapes are much less assertive than garlic cloves, so they are ideal for dishes where you want only a hint of garlic flavor and aroma. I especially like them in egg dishes or as a last-minute addition to sweet potatoes, carrots, squash or other non-green vegetables. Or try this: sauté chopped garlic scapes in a little butter and stir into hot mashed potatoes.
Rather than rush to eat all of my garlic scapes fresh, I cut them into small pieces and steam-blanch them for 3 minutes, and freeze them in freezer bags. In cooking, one tablespoon of chopped frozen garlic scapes is equivalent to a medium clove. Garlic scapes are nutritious, too, and deliver respectable amounts of vitamin C and calcium.
When Is Garlic Ready to Dig?
After the last scape is cut, I give my garlic a deep watering if the weather is dry. This is the last supplemental water my garlic will get, because the plants are finished producing new leaves, and ready to start drying down. Some gardeners find it difficult to decide exactly when to dig garlic, but these three guidelines will keep your garlic harvesting on time:
- Counting from the date in which most of the scapes are cut, the bulbs will be ready to dig about 20 days later, give or take a few days for weather variables.
- Most fully grown garlic plants have 7 to 9 leaves. When the three lowest leaves turn yellow and tan, but the three highest leaves are still green, it’s garlic harvesting time.
- When 30 percent of the total foliar mass – lower, middle and upper leaves – appear to be withering or show brown tips, which indicates that the plants have cut back on the nutrients and moisture supplied to the leaves.
I have read farm bulletins suggesting that garlic be allowed to dry down naturally in the field, but in my experience this will get you a ruined crop. By harvesting garlic when it’s still half green and allowing three weeks for garlic curing, the bulbs will dry nice and tight, with plenty of papery outer scales.
Garlic Curing in Three Steps
Use a digging fork to loosen the soil around and beneath bulbs before pulling them, and take care to avoid bumps and bruises. Garlic curing begins when you lay out the plants in a warm, dry place, with all of their leaves attached, for about a week. During this time the plants will be quite aromatic, which some family members may find unpleasant, an opinion shared by mosquitoes.
After a week, using pruning shears to cut off all but about 5 inches (12 cm) of stem, lightly rub off excess soil and clip off long roots, and return the curing garlic to its drying place. As seen in the photo at the top of the page, bulbs harvested early have been trimmed and set to dry stem-down on the top shelf, with newly harvested plants behind them.
I let my garlic cure for another week or so outdoors, and then trim off the remaining stem and dried roots. The bulbs then go to their third curing spot, the cool stones under the wood stove, where they rest for another week or so, or until I need the space for bulb onions. The garlic curing process is now complete, three weeks start to finish.
Commercial garlic is kept at 32°F (0°C) to preserve its shelf life, but cool room temperatures work better for most gardeners. In fact, room-temperature storage works better than refrigerated storage for garlic bulbs, which may break dormancy too soon when kept in the fridge.
By Barbara Pleasant