This year we harvested our garlic on July 10, let it dry for two weeks and then decided to braid some of it. Most years we make a mixture of hard and soft neck garlic braids but this year we were only able to braid our soft neck garlic. While we can usually braid the hard neck for up to three weeks after harvest, it had been very hot and dry so when we got around to braiding all the scapes were as stiff as wooden dowels and pretty much unbendable. In a wetter year, after a week or so of drying down the scapes become flaccid and rubbery and braid-able. Soft necks are braid-able until the leaves totally dry out because you braid the leaves, not the scapes.
To make braids, we select garlic that isn’t too big or too small and that is more or less of uniform size, with long leaves. (If we are making hard neck garlic braids, we select plants with flexible scapes.) We then strip off the very dry and fragile leaves to see what is left. If the leaves aren’t too brittle, you can braid it. We are also careful to pick garlic that is not damaged and that doesn’t have torn wrappers or exposed cloves since it keeps better than injured garlic. That said, sometimes if you incorporate a damaged bulb at the bottom, you won’t feel so inclined to leave it as a decorative item and will be more likely to use it.
Our basic small garlic braid is made with seven bulbs. You can put in as many as you want, but if you want to give them as semi-casual gifts, like a hostess gift, you probably don’t want to put your entire garlic crop into them. A seven-bulb braid is the equivalent of giving someone a bottle of drinkable wine as a gift, in my book.
The most essential rule in all of this: is to braid tightly so that the whole thing doesn’t all apart. This is how Michael makes a basic braid.
Attaching the bulbs (casting on): You take three bulbs, cross two of them and put one on top of the cross, down the middle. The stems are toward you, the bulbs away from you.
You take the lowest stem and cross it over the middle stem, pulling it up tight against the three bulbs. That now becomes the middle stem.
Then you add another bulb and lay the new stem along side the stem that is now in the middle. Then you take the stem that is now on the bottom and cross it over the middle two stems to lock in the new stem plus the middle stem. You now have a single stem in the middle. You add one garlic bulb on to that and cross the single stem that is on the opposite side on the bottom over the middle double stem. Add another bulb and you now have three double stems and six garlic bulbs. Then you cross the bottom pair over the middle and add the seventh bulb of garlic.
You could keep going, but we generally stop at seven. Once you have crossed the bottom double strand and locked in the final seventh head of garlic, you have one strand of three stems in the middle, with two double-stemmed strands on either side. You are ready to braid the leaves or scapes. Or keep going, locking in more garlic to the braid. Michael once made a 21 bulb garlic braid. It was beautiful.
Choosing the braid pattern: You can do any braid pattern. Michael has three patterns that he likes, simple, herring bone and a basket weave.
The simple braid is just like braiding hair on little girls. Take the three bunches of leaf strands, one with three stems and two with two stems and keep braiding them by moving the lowest strand across the middle strand. The photo below shows a simple 9 bulb braid, made this year with soft neck garlic.
To make a herring bone braid you start with the stalks fanned out and with an uneven number of garlic bulbs, five or seven or nine. You take the outermost strand of stems and move it to the middle. Then you take the outermost on the other side to the middle. It looks like this when it is done, although this is a hard necked garlic braid where he braided scapes, not leaves:
The basic weave braid is a little more complicated and I do not have a photo of it, unfortunately. Spread the stems out in a fan. Take the outermost stem and weave it over and under and over and under until it gets to the other side. Then you take the outermost on the opposite side and weave it over and under till you get to the other side. You keep weaving from the outside across, making a narrow mat until you have done enough or run out of ends, then you tie the bunch at the top. We didn’t make any of these this year.
Tying the braid: This year we just used twine to tie off the top end of the braid and make a loop to hang it. On more prepared years, we used colored yarn or ribbon. Anything that ties will do. You also should tie off the bottom three bulbs of the braid so it won’t unravel. Wrap twine under the bottom-most bulb. Wrap the twine around the top of the next two bulbs, then wrap the twine from each of those bulbs around the other bulb and tie tightly in the back. You can also add decorative touches, like dried flowers, if you are so inclined. We mostly don’t bother.
Using the braid: Cut garlic from the bottom, as needed. Our braided garlic usually lasts hanging in our kitchen until around March or April, although some of it may start to sprout or dry out. Cut garlic usually starts to dry out around the first of the year.