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Garlic Harvesting, Tasting, and Braiding
Oh the amazing garlic. Garlic is one of our staple crops and a key ingredient in most of our meals. I could write tomes on garlic, but today I’m going to focus on how to obtain two harvests from garlic, the results of our garlic tasting (we trialed 10 different varieties this year), and curing and storing techniques.
I learned how to plant, harvest, cure, and braid garlic from my time apprenticing at Camp Joy Gardens and we haven’t stopped planting garlic ever since. Garlic is surprisingly easy to grow and low maintenance while offering many rewards. Growing garlic connects us to the cycles of the season in deeply satisfying ways. Garlic planting goes hand in hand with wrapping up the gardening season in the fall. Laying down a thick blanket of mulch over the garlic feels like we’re tucking them in for a cozy winter. Then in spring, their green shoots poke up through the matted mulch signaling warmer days and the beginning of the gardening season.
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Harvesting Garlic Scape
Garlic harvesting for us actually begins as early as July. That’s because we harvest garlic scape, which is the flowering stalk. (The part we are used to eating is the bulb, which is underground). Before we get into eating garlic scape, it’s good to know that garlic scapes only form on hardneck garlic varieties. Hardneck and softneck are terms we use to differentiate two main types of garlic. The neck refers to the stalk that stems from the center of the garlic bulb. In hardnecks, this stem hardens as it grows, whereas in softneck varieties, there is no main stalk and the leaves stay soft and flexible at maturity.
Softneck garlic is the type you’ll often see at grocery stores because they have a longer shelf-life and milder in flavor. Softneck varieties also have the advantage of being pliable for braiding. However, softnecks are not as cold hardy as hardneck so they cannot grow in northern climates. Aside from producing scapes, hardnecks are spicier and make larger bulbs that are very easy to peel.
• Spicier, more flavorful
• Large bulbs
• 4-6 cloves per bulb
• Easy to peel
• Produces a scape
• Cold hardy
• Mild flavors
• Small bulbs
• 12-15 cloves per bulb
• Stores longer
• Can be braided
• Not cold hardy
Here in Oregon, we can grow both hardneck and softneck garlic. At our homestead, we grow both because we get an extra harvest from the hardneck garlic and longer storage with softnecks.
Now, back to garlic scape. If you haven’t tried them and you love garlic, you’re in for a treat! Garlic scape is just as tasty as garlic bulbs but with a crispness that’s similar to asparagus. Harvesting the scape has no effect on the plant, so we will cut all of the scapes that come up and use them. We’ve tried different ways of eating garlic scapes from roasting to stir-frying, but our hands-down favorite is a simple garlic scape pesto! It’s easy to make and store and is versatile.
Garlic Scape Pesto Recipe:
Chop up the stalks, removing the flower buds (this gets stringy and doesn’t blend well). Add olive oil and salt, then blend. I use an immersion blender but you can also use a food processor or regular blender. I start with a small amount and then add more of each ingredient until it’s a smooth pesto consistency and tastes good. That’s it.
Harvesting Garlic Bulbs
When to harvest garlic bulbs will vary season to season so the best way to gauge their readiness is to observe the leaves. Last year, because we planted our garlic earlier than usual (in October instead of November), they were ready sooner in July.
A good sign to look for is when the leaves begin to yellow and dry. However, we want to keep 5-6 green leaves left still. Each leaf is a bulb wrapper, which protects the bulb during storage.
Next, we’ll assess soil texture before harvesting by digging with our fork on the edges of the garlic bed. In the heat of the summer, the soil can be dry and cloddy, especially if not using raised beds. Speaking from experience, this makes it harder to dig up the cloves without damaging them. If this is the case, we’d lightly water the bed and wait a couple days and try digging again. Note that we don’t want the bed soggy because mud on the cloves will create mold.
Last summer, Noel chose a terrific spot for the garlic – in a shady, cool corner of the orchard, so digging them up was a breeze! We loosened the soil around the cloves with our forks and then gently pulled them up by the stalk. River helped too.
Once we’ve finished digging up all the garlic, we gently brushed off the dirt around the wrappers and roots. You can also trim the roots. Then it’s time to cure them. This takes about 2-3 weeks. You can eat the garlic right away but curing will develop the flavors and ensure they’re completely dry before you store them.
At Camp Joy, we laid the harvested garlic in one layer under the shade of a grandmother redwood tree. The pine needles prevented mold while the shade offered protection from the intense summer sun. It was always a sight to behold and it felt magical to me.
Our own method is to bunch the garlic in bundles of 10 and hang them across a line of rope hung on the ceiling of our empty cottage. It’s a cool and dry spot, ideal for drying. Your method may vary based on the space available to you. I’ve seen them hung on clothes drying racks, barn walls, garden sheds, and porches. As long as it’s cool and dry, with some air circulation (you can add a fan if needed), you’re good to go. Check on the garlic every couple days to make sure there’s no mold developing.
Garlic Processing & Storage
Once the garlic has been properly cured, we take the garlic down from the strings and clean and inspect them by removing some of the outer wrappers and trimming the necks and roots.
We then organize and cull the garlic by size and storage. We save the largest, best looking cloves for planting. Damaged garlic go to the eat-now bowl. All the hardnecks are put into boxes for use throughout the winter season. Softnecks are saved separately for braiding and hanging for long-term storage and eaten last.
Like many of our vegetables and fruits, garlic comes in a kaleidoscope of varieties, flavors, and characteristics. Exploring the incredible diversity of plants is part of the immense joy of gardening! Through this exploration, you’ll find there are much better options for your particular preferences and gardening conditions.
Trialing means to grow a broad selection of the same plant in similar conditions to compare them side by side. We usually choose just one veggie to trial at a time because it takes extra space, time, and energy to grow several varieties and keep good records. The first time we did this, it was with tomatoes and we were so excited by the discovery of new flavors and varieties that we began to make it a yearly goal to try a different staple crop each year to narrow down on our own tried and true.
Last summer we trialed 10 different varieties of garlic in the search for our homestead favorite. We created a rating chart and involved the family in the whole experience. We also included both raw garlic, chopped up in olive oil and some bread to dip with, and roasted garlic as part of the taste test.
Our rating chart had the following factors: Flavor, Size, Processing (ease of peeling, signs of breakage/molding, etc). We rated the hardnecks separate from the softnecks so we’d know which is our favorite from each category. There were 7 hardnecks: Music, Khabar, Siberian, Donastia, Vekak, Basque, and Pyong Yang. And 3 softnecks: Chilean Silverskin (softneck), Inchelium (soft neck), and St. Helen (softneck).
When we started the tasting part, Noel’s parents were doubtful that they could tell the difference. Garlic just tastes garlicky, right? Well, you’d be surprised! Our notes included details like, creamy, potato-y, chestnut-y, earthy, spicy, and floral.
And when we finished our notes and reviewed the chart, there were clear favorites. The winner of the hardnecks was Siberian which had the biggest heads, was easy to peel, and had the sharpest flavors (it even brought tears to our eyes). The winner of the softnecks was St. Helen, which was spicy with an earthy flavor and held up to braiding better than the others.
Had we not trialed garlic, we probably would’ve just kept growing Music as we had done the last two years, never knowing what other amazing garlic are out there! And there maybe even more we are yet to discover.
By the way, we get all of our seed garlic from our local seed company, Siskiyou Seeds. They have a great post on the different garlic varieties and their particular flavors and characteristics if you’re interested to learn more.
I learned how to braid garlic at Camp Joy Gardens, a farm activity that goes on throughout late summer and fall, in preparation for their annual holiday sale. At first, I thought it was all about beauty as the garlic looked so festive and artful hanging as culinary decor on the wall, but after witnessing how long our own garlic braids have lasted (well over a year), I realized braiding serves a practical purpose too! When we need a head of garlic to cook, we simply pull one off the braid.
Braiding garlic is something better shown than written about, so I’ve included a video below. This was my first braid of this season and was not as tight as I’d like. It takes a little bit of practice to get used to get the right tension so the garlic is secure but not so tight that it breaks off the neck. If some break off, that’s ok because you can still store them in a basket.
I tried braiding with both Inchelium garlic and St. Helen and most of the Inchelium neck broke off while only one St. Helen broke off.
As a flower afficionado and wreath maker, I couldn’t help but add dried flowers to my garlic braid. This adds color and beauty and make a perfect homemade holiday gift! Herbs like bay, rosemary, and sage, as well as peppers, are also great additions to this edible wall art.