Garlic is an easy crop and should have a place in every home garden. The individual cloves are planted in October, lie dormant in the ground all winter, and then are among the first plants to sprout in the spring. You can buy garlic heads from your local farmers market this fall, break them up into cloves, and plant them, pointy end up, about 4 inches deep, just like a small flower bulb. We work compost into the soil before planting; garlic likes fertile soil. We cultivate around the plants in the spring and early summer to keep the grasses and tall weeds down and snip off the bulbils that grow from the tip of the scape in early summer. If you are into experimenting, you can grow out the bulbils in a flowerpot and eat the fresh garlic greens.
Instead of buying new garlic every year, you can use some of the garlic you grew this season to plant your crop for next year. We set aside around 1/6 of our crop for “seed” every year. Garlic reproduces clonally, so no actual seed is used. If you grow the same garlic in your garden every year, and select the best heads for planting the following year, you end up with a locally vigorous variety that does well in your soil and climate conditions. But it is best to start with garlic grown locally; California garlic may not be so happy in Northeastern weather.
We grew around 300 heads of garlic in our community-sharecropping garden this year. We grow enough garlic to share with the people who give us gardening space, so you probably don’t need 300 heads of garlic for home use unless you drink garlic infusions before going to bed at night. Our household generally uses a garlic bulb every 2 or 3 days, so we keep about 100 heads, set 50 aside for replanting in the fall, and then give the rest away.
There are two basic kinds of garlic, soft neck and hard neck. Only hard neck garlic has scapes. The center of a soft neck garlic head has two sets of cloves, an outer larger set, and an inner smaller set. In hard neck garlic, that inner set of cloves is missing and instead you have the woody base of the scape. Hard neck garlic has more uniform large cloves and a more complex and mellow flavor. Soft neck garlic keeps longer, since it has more outer wrappers than hard neck, so we grow it for use in late winter. It also tends to be hotter and harsher than hard neck garlic, so you can use less of it. The garlic you buy in the supermarket that comes from California is soft neck.
We have grown the same variety of hard neck garlic, German Red, for more than 20 years. Our friends Martha and Seth from Slack Hollow Farm gave us the original bulbs and we have propagated it ever since. We have on occasion tried different garlic varieties but like German Red the best. We are trying a new garlic this year, a kind of Silverskin garlic, given to us by our friend Helen who gardens on Cape Cod. Helen, who is a die hard foodie, declares that this is her favorite garlic. Silverskins are soft necks, good for braiding and keeping.
By mid-July the top two sets of leaves on the garlic plants die down and we harvest our garlic. In drier climates, you can leave it in the ground longer, until the leaves are about 90% brown, but if you do that in the Northeast, you run the risk of having the garlic rot in the ground before harvest.
To harvest garlic, we use a garden fork to loosen the soil around the plant. It is important not to pierce the garlic bulb when you do this, so we put the fork into the ground about six inches out from the base of the plant. We pry under the plant with the fork, then pull it up by hand. If you try to pull without first loosening the soil, the neck may break off from the bulb.
We do an initial cleaning of the heads in the garden, brushing the dirt off the roots and bulbs with our hands. The purpose of this is not to make bright, clean, grocery-store garlic, but to ensure that the plant doesn’t have an earth ball around its roots that will keep it from curing properly. If it has moist soil on its roots, it will keep trying to grow and may not dry down properly. In this initial cleaning of the garlic you should be careful not to remove the wrappers, the papery outer surface of the bulb, because they protect the garlic and help it stay moist in your kitchen or root cellar all year long. Naked garlic is desiccated garlic. That said, removing a single wrapper to get off clots of clay is probably no big deal.
Once the garlic is harvested and cleaned lightly we take it to a friend’s garden shed where we dry it for three weeks. If you only have a small amount of garlic from a home garden, you can tie it in to bunches of ten or so and hang it in an airy place, like a sheltered porch or garage or even in your house if you don’t mind the aromatic smell of fresh garlic for a few days before it dries down.
We stack our garlic in single layers on boards, with risers between board layers, kind of like the old cinder block and board bookcases we used in graduate school. The risers are essential to give each layer of garlic enough room for air to circulate. If you just make a big pile of garlic without air circulation, you will end up with rotting garlic sludge. In a really wet year, we might turn a fan or two on the garlic while it is curing, but most of the time that isn’t necessary.
During the process of curing, the garlic goes through some internal development. If you open a freshly harvested garlic head in mid July, it will not have fully formed internal walls between cloves, and the garlic will be greenish and juicy. There is nothing wrong with eating it at that stage, but it has a much harsher taste than mellowed, cured garlic.
We sometimes make garlic braids out of part of our garlic. If they are tightly braided, they make a really good edible gift since they are beautiful. I am terrible at this, my braids are sloppy, but my husband Michael plaits a mean garlic braid. If we get around to doing this, I will write a follow up post on braiding. Because you leave the stems on garlic braids, the garlic keeps better into the winter than garlic that you trim. We still have usable garlic on a couple of braids we made last year. The rest of our garlic sprouted or dried out around two months ago.
Some people think you can’t braid hard neck garlic, but they are wrong. At around 10 to 15 days after harvest, it is dry enough to handle easily but still supple enough to braid. We leave the scapes on our garlic, in part to minimize wounding the plant during the growing season. Many people cut the scapes off during the growing season; it probably doesn’t matter much. The scapes provide a sort of backbone to the braid.
Garlic that is not being braided gets trimmed after it cures. We cut the stem and roots off around three weeks after harvest, brush off any dry dirt and, if it is still dirty, remove the outer wrapper so that we won’t get mud on our cutting board when we use it. We store our garlic in a basket in the kitchen, where the air is somewhat moist from cooking, and it lasts until around March. Soft neck garlic can last until the new crop is in if it is the right environment but it is pretty flavorless toward the end.
If I ever get around to buying a dehydrator, I will try making garlic powder, but since I am torn between wanting to experiment and wanting to get down to 100 possessions (I have something like a million possessions to go to get to that goal), I guess garlic powder will just have to wait.
Editor’s Note: Dianna & Michael have a series of gardens on their friend’s property, community sharecropping. If you are new to Dianna‘s ongoing series, please go back and read her past articles on the subject. So totally fascinating.