The cool, rainy start to the season gave us a bounty of stinking roses. Digging up the garlic that grew tall enough to throw shade at the corn, the pungent bulbs are coming on strong now that it’s late July and harvest time. From spicy hot to nutty mellow, big flavor sprouts from these little cloves. If you’re growing garlic for the first time, get ready for harvest and plan for next year’s crop.
Hardneck garlic throws a curled, flowering stem called a “scape” that, if left on the plant, eventually turns woody. Softneck garlic doesn’t normally do this.
If you want big bulbs, scapes have to be cut from the plant, snipped off before it makes a loop. But don’t worry if you missed cutting them from the plant and it bloomed—from this flower small bulbils will form that grow into small bulbs in a couple of seasons. If you’re interested in propagating your garlic from these bulbils, leave them in place until harvest time and then dry them separately from the bulbs.
Once garlic throws scapes and the tips begin browning back, stop watering it. Let the leaves die down and harvest when the lower leaves are half to three-quarters brown. Use a flat shovel or garden fork to loosen the ground near the bulbs and then lift the plants by hand.
Check the first bulbs you pull before harvesting the whole lot by gently brushing away the dirt to look for maturity. They should have reached a good size and be well wrapped in skin. To help them dry quickly, hang them upside down to cure in a dry, warm, dark, airy place for a few weeks, then cut stalks one inch above the bulb for storage.
Early varieties should be ready in mid to late July, with mid and late season garlic ready through late August. Garlic comes in dozens of delicious varieties, so shop your local farmer’s markets for new types to try. Some are mellow and good keepers; others are spicy-hot and best used soon.
When purchasing garlic to plant, use certified, disease free bulbs from reputable garden centers. Talk with your garden center about when they’ll get garlic in for planting and inquire about what types they’ll offer or shop online now for best selection; these often sell out quickly. They’ll ship to you in September for planting Because of the possibility of chemical storage treatments or disease, don’t plant garlic you buy at the grocer’s.
If you’re a rookie gardener, be aware that garlic varieties offer subtle to strong flavor. Softneck types—those with soft center stalks—are tolerant of common mistakes and easy for beginners to grow. The bulbs are larger than hardneck varieties and have more cloves. They store well, sometimes for up to nine months.
Hardneck types have a center stalk that is stiffened and woody. They have fewer cloves but are larger and easier to peel than softnecks. Both types offer great flavor.
In our case, eating all of it is out of the question, and now I’m assessing my friends and family to see if they will take some off of my hands. Every vegetable gardener goes through this. Each season brings a bounty of one crop or another, and people who are normally friends or acquaintances suddenly become targets for excess produce giveaways.
We have a wonderful organization here called Community Food Share, which takes excess produce from gardeners and gives it to those who need it. Many food banks usually welcome most produce from local gardens provided that it is fresh, undamaged, and clean. Take your extras to them and let others share in the bounty of the harvest.
Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, or visit the web site at ext.colostate.edu/boulder.