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Growing Garlic & Knowing When to Harvest + Recipe

June 23, 2009

Patience is important to those who know when to harvest garlic. It takes a long while, but the rewards are worth it!

It was last October, shortly before Halloween 2008, that I planted my garlic, and it still isn’t ready yet. Many readers have written in to ask how to know when garlic is ready. Some clients have been asking all spring about planting garlic, and I’ve been telling them they need to wait until Fall. And, they’ll need some patience. Garlic takes almost as many months to mature as a human fetus (that’s about 9 if you didn’t know). So, here’s a little rundown on garlic.

Tubs of Newly Planted Garlic in October 2008

Tubs of Newly Planted Garlic in October 2008

All of the varieties I planted are hardnecks, and the scapes have been rolling in for the last few weeks. The scapes have been an unexpected treat. I knew I’d be pinching them out and using them to cook this spring, but somehow the idea that I’d have fresh garlic before I had ripened bulbs hadn’t completely connected for me. So, they have been a treat. I’ve used them to saute fresh snowpeas and king boletes. They’ve been included in garlic-sorrel vinaigrettes for salads. I’ve mixed them with fresh rosemary, sage and thyme to rub on pork loin. Really, they work equally well as a chopped garlic clove. Sometimes I think they may even be better. And, it is important to pinch the scapes out or the cloves within the bulbs won’t achieve maximum growth.

One side note: I did plant a clove of elephant garlic. It sprouted in fall, but it turned to mush after the hard winter snows. So, no elephants in the garden this summer.

Here’s the concept: a plant forms a flower, in this case a garlic scape. If the flower opens and is pollinated, the plant throws a huge amount of energy into forming seed. As it does this, it won’t put much energy at this time into rooting or storage of energy into the roots. So, in the case of garlic, if the potential to form seed is removed by pinching out an unopened, unfertilized, seedless scape, the plant then throws its energy into maximizing its growth potential by beefing up its bulb before it goes dormant. It knows that by storing maximum energy in its root, it has more chance of putting on stronger flowers in the following year to then spread its seed. Plants are patient. What they don’t realize is we’re patient too, just waiting for the bulbs to fill out and the top growth to whither in summer. That’s when we harvest the bulbs!

Tubs of Maturing Garlic in June 2009

Tubs of Maturing Garlic in June 2009

So, if you haven’t been pinching out those scapes. Get out there asap and do it. Also, check your stalks. As the plant’s top growth begins to fade to brown, bit-by-bit, in early to mid-summer, the stalk may also become weak and has the potential to go mushy. Sometimes, as the browning begins, it is time to hold back on the watering. A bit of stress will force the plant to fatten up that bulb and reduce the potential that the stalk and the root may rot in a too-moist soil medium.

As you continue to watch the top growth brown out and wonder if your bulbs are ready to harvest, it may take digging down around one bulb and possibly harvesting one a little young to check your overall crop. Since garlic grows below ground, it is almost impossible to know if it is totally “ready” without harvesting a sample.

Yesterday, I dug out one of my most faded plants. The scape had been pinched out weeks ago, and most of the top growth was faded or fading to brown. First, I dug down to find the bulb of garlic. I noticed it seemed to have moved deeper into the soil than the 2″ or so depth to which I had planted its parent clove last fall. I also noticed that what had been a single clove last winter was now a full, fat bulb. The soil was somewhat moist, but not soggy. However, I also noticed that the stalk of the plant, where it enters the soil, was somewhat weak. I continued to dig and lifted out a decent head of garlic. But, the crop still isn’t ready yet. I can eat this head, but I’ll be waiting at least a couple more weeks before I try another sample.

The reason: the cloves haven’t fully filled out the surrounding outer casing and clearly could get a bit fatter.

Garlic Scapes, Clove and Creamy Vinaigrette

Garlic Scapes, Clove and Creamy Vinaigrette

So, I’ll continue to enjoy the last of my garlic scapes and this first, semi-formed bulb of beautiful purplish-striped garlic cloves. I’ll be withholding water a bit more until I try harvesting again just to keep rotting at bay. I won’t let the soil completely dry out, but I won’t be watering as heavily as I had been.

And, just a note of fertilization: I haven’t fertilized my garlic in months. Many recommend fish fertilizer. I went a different route this year. I applied a dusting of alfalfa meal back in March to encourage more top growth as the green portions of the plant were doing their spring surge. As well, I added a sprinkling of vermicompost to the plants a little later in the season. Then I stopped adding any further amendments. So far, so good!

When I do harvest my cloves, I try to remove as much soil as possible without washing them. Best to dust them off with a soft brush. Then, I put them in a cool, dark spot, to cure for a couple of weeks. I like to hang them in a closet where they get good airflow. And, yes, I do use some fresh from the ground when they’re sweet and juicy. But, some I will store for later use, and drying is important.

In case you’ve got a bumper crop of garlic scapes like I’ve been enjoying, here’s a fantastic, thick, vinaigrette that doubles well as a light, pesto-esque sandwich spread:

Creamy Sorrel-Garlic Vinaigrette Print Print

  • Fist-full of freshly-torn sorrel leaves (adjust based on your taste for lemon)
  • 6-9 roughly chopped garlic scapes or two large garlic cloves, minced (adjust based on your taste for garlic & size of scapes or cloves)
  • small fist-full of freshly torn parsley
  • dash salt
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup nonfat yogurt
  • 3/4 cup olive oil

Place all of the ingredients except the olive oil in a blender. Blend until mixed to a frothy green goodness, scraping down sides as needed. With the blender running, slowly pour in olive oil to emulsify. Adjust seasonings to taste, keeping in mind that flavors will blend, strengthen and then mellow as the mixture stands. Keeps well refrigerated.


  1. Katy says:

    Huh. I don’t have any of said scapes and planted our around the same time you did. Plus, ours is already falling over even though they looked lush and upright as close as a week ago. Thoughts??

  2. rhaglund says:

    Maybe you don’t have hardnecks? Softneck garlic won’t have scapes. Have you checked the base of the plant? Could be rot if they’re getting too wet 🙁

  3. I too planted hardnecks and got no scapes this year but I think it’s because the tops were starting to grow and then we got another late freeze out here. The tops basically wilted down and now are growing again but no scapes this year. Wonder what that will mean for the garlic below ground?

  4. Barbara, that’s kind of bizarre. My scapes haven’t made their appearance yet either. Keep watching for them & let us know what happens!

  5. […] used in the past for trees and large shrubs. In the spring of 2009 — around Solstice — I began harvesting garlic scapes for cooking. That’s when I stopped buying garlic at the farmer’s marke, let […]

  6. Deedee Howlett says:

    Ive hunted sites this is first one to mention scapes I have them and planted in september but in containers im heading out to get the scapes and use them in the lasagne and garlic bread for dinner tonight. Thanks so much

  7. So glad we could be of help. We used the first of our scapes this season last night too — in curry & stir fry. Yum!

  8. John in East TN says:

    Just made a wonderful pesto with garlic scapes, a little bit of basil, roasted pecans, lemon zest and olive oil. Diluted some of the pesto with white wine and spread over grilled salmon with basting brush. Cheers to “green” garlic.

  9. John, that sounds fantastic! Love the cheese-free pesto idea. MMMM!

  10. catalina faria says:

    Im really excited, because I have been trying for a long time how to grow garlic and everytime I did it would die. so now that I read your ad how to do it I can’t wait to fall.I use garlic for everything. THAK YOU.

  11. Catalina – so glad this helps. Hope you enjoy a fantastic harvest next spring and summer!

  12. […] leaf miners attack them in late spring, I mow the entire patch to the ground and make a batch of sorrel pesto with the harvest. This way, the leaf miners don’t make ugly work of my sorrel, and the plants […]

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