Bulbs are the easiest group of plants for a novice gardener or beginning farmer to grow. When a plant has evolved to form a bulb, it’s telling you that it can handle hot, dry weather, and it often also means that it can wait out sharp, cold weather. If the bulbs you’re planting happen to be garlic, then it means you’ll have three options for harvesting this crop: early season green garlic, mid- to late-season flower scapes from hardneck garlic, and late-season mature bulbs. A softneck variety even adds a fourth option when it comes to marketing: Braid the leaves of the mature crop to sell at a higher value-added price.
Most gardeners plant cloves of garlic before winter sets in. The cold stimulates the clove to grow some roots. With spring weather, shoots will break ground. In the South, garlic is mature by early summer. Up north, you’ll have to wait for late summer.
Keep bulbs whole until you’re ready to plant, and then separate them. Poke each clove about 2 inches deep and 8 inches apart into prepared soil that has compost and organic fertilizer already tilled in. Apply 2 to 4 inches of organic mulch to prevent frost heaving in the North and to hold moisture in the South. Irrigate the bed during dry spells, but forgo watering for the last few weeks before harvest, as the plants are beginning to go dormant.
Once the greens are about knee-high or taller, you can get ready for your triple play.
A crop harvested in early spring is called green garlic, and for this you’ll dig up the entire plant. The tops will still be bright green and the bulb will have just formed but cloves won’t be evident. Green garlic looks and tastes a bit more like a leek. Use the greens and bulbs for pizza, pesto, salads, or as an alternative to chives and spring onions.
As hardneck garlic bulbs begin to mature, you can help them fill out by harvesting the entire flower scape after it’s made one or two loops. A scape won’t really flower, but it will make airborne mini-bulbs, called bulbils, that take energy away from the bulb forming underground. Garlic can be propagated from these bulbils, but it takes much longer than from cloves. Cook scapes very lightly in a sauté or briefly on the grill for a mild allium flavor.
You’ll know garlic’s underground bulbs are approaching maturity as the leaves start to brown in summer. As a general rule, when a third of the leaves are brown you should gently harvest the bulbs. Sunshine will burn the bulbs, so store them unwashed outdoors in the shade of a porch or shed for two to four weeks to cure them. When the leaves are totally dry, cut off the leaves and roots and brush off any dry soil.
Kept dry, garlic bulbs will last for several months depending on variety. But set the bulbs with the biggest cloves aside: Bigger cloves will grow stronger plants for the next season of triple plays.
Bonus: Garlic Braids
If your fingers are nimble, the stalks of softneck garlic varieties can be braided while still green. But even hardneck varieties can be tied into a similar arrangement with string or yarn. Individual bulbs should have their dried stalks removed for sales or for storage in mesh potato or onion bags.
This article originally ran in the November/December 2016 issue of Hobby Farms.