That’s my friend Mary Ann Moran above, proudly showing off her garlic, harvested in mid-July. That seemed early to me, so when she sent me her pictures I ran out to check my own crop. Yes, most of the plants looked ready, meaning some of the lower leaves were browning with the top ones still a healthy green. Usually I don’t harvest garlic until at least the end of July, sometimes early August. Maybe our hot weather brought them on quicker.
Many new growers of garlic think there’s some kind of magic in knowing when to dig it up–you need a talent for “reading the leaves,” as some wit once said to me–but I think it’s really a matter of checking the leaves regularly for browning, which I didn’t do this year because I’d sworn off gardening for a week after our most recent garden tour July 14. Woe to me–while I was watching TV the weeds grew with abandon and the garlic ripened! So now I’m dealing with them both.
Although it has only two or three partially browning leaves, I had to find out if the garlic plant in the photo below left was ready so I carefully inserted my trowel a few inches from the base of the plant and loosened the bulb. Up it came, covered with the detritus of its prenatal home, like all newborns. It looked a bit small, but perfectly formed. (A caveat here: growing garlic among other plants is not advisable because garlic needs as much sun as it can get, but the pink catchfly seen in the picture seeded itself and is so pretty I couldn’t bear to take it out. The plants grow only about 10 inches high and don’t reach full size till the garlic is almost ready, so I rationalized.)
The photo on the right shows the garlic dug up, with most of the dirt brushed off, sunning itself on the deck. Would it have produced a bigger bulb if I’d left it in the ground longer? That’s every garlic grower’s question. But its sister garlics, which I planted at the same time and dug up a week after this one, are no bigger. They will all be deliciously garlicky, I know, even if they are smalller than some.
There is a risk in leaving garlic in the ground too long hoping for bigger bulbs, by the way. The bulbs can start to split, with the skin loosening and the cloves separating (Mother Nature’s way of propagation–each clove would grow to be a new plant). Split bulbs or those with loose skins are perfectly edible in the short term, but they won’t last long. They shouldn’t be stored because they’re prone to rot.
May Ann’s garlic is impressively big, especially for a first-year harvest. Garlic is a funny plant–it gets bigger and better if you replant some of the cloves from your current harvest for next year. It’s almost as if it has to get used to your environment to feel comfortable enough to put forth its best effort. When I asked Mary Ann if she’d done anything special to ensure big bulbs, she said, “I have great soil, thanks to my compost pile. I also mulched well last fall with leaf mould and shredded leaves, although the weeds this year weren’t too bad because of the mulch.”
This is Mary Ann’s second year growing garlic, and she looks like a natural. “But I’m far more educated now because I read your book,” she said, sweet girl. “I think I did harvest early, but I had several varieties and they all started to brown at different times, so I decided to harvest them all at the same time.”
‘Russian Red’ and ‘Portugal Azores’ are the best in her harvest, she says, and ‘Pitarelli’ is pretty good, too. I can’t name my garlic varieties this year because they were a gift and the donor didn’t know what they were. But in the past I’ve had success with ‘Lorz Italian’, a softneck that has a richer taste than most others in the Artichoke category, and the hardnecks ‘Music’ (a favourite variety in Ontario, brought here from Italy by Al Music in the 1980s); ‘Majestic’ (developed at Beaver Pond Estates in Ontario); and of course ‘Spanish Roja’, a Rocambole type, everyone’s favourite garlic for its rich but mellow taste.
If all these names confuse you, get my book, In Pursuit of Garlic, which tells you all you need to know about nature’s most unappreciated plant, from how to grow it and what types to try, to its history and lore. Recipes, too. Take a look at the new excerpt from my book on this site, too–it reveals my experiences with my first garlic harvest.
And drop me a line–I’ll put your name in the pot and draw one for a copy of my book, the above named In Pursuit of Garlic: An Intimate Look at the Divinely Odorous
Bulb. I’m making the draw August 15, 2013, so don’t miss it.