This is what happens when I run out of something important like garlic before I think I will: an overharvest. Crazy but this isn’t even all of it. This stuff cures in the dark in the tractor shed on these old window screens for about a week before I either braid it or cut the hardneck stalks and roots off.
This is the time of year that fall-planted garlic is harvested. Having been a crazy garlic experimenter, and having a husband who thinks all produce is edible only IF it is stiff with garlic and salt, to say this is a banner year for Allium sativum is an understatement. We are swimming in the stuff now.
It has taken me a few years of growing it to really understand garlic’s needs. Let me just say I do not have the expectation of having enormous heads of garlic, with beautiful huge cloves, in my harvest. I expect to get bulbs about 75% of the monstrous tasteless things commonly available. (Small packages of power is what I want!) For the most part, garlic is reproduced vegetatively: the parent plant produces clones of self-sufficient cloves that become separate heads with time. Each clove has two leaf shoots in it, as you might have seen if you had some that got sprouty. And in instances of extreme stress, garlic occasionally produces seeds. I am not aware if these seeds are likewise clones of the parent, or if they are separate varieties (think apples: seeds of a Granny Smith apple will not be Granny Smith trees). I have only planted cloves and bulbils (of which more later).
This older head shows how garlic eventually divides.
There are two distinct types, softneck and hardneck garlic. The major difference between the two is storage ability. Softnecks tend to last much longer, and are in the main the sulfurous stinkbombs you buy at the grocery store. Their cloves tend to be small and hard to peel. Hardneck garlic, or rocambole, is characterized by larger, easier-peeled cloves, and a much shorter shelflife. I also think they are lots more tasty. It’s the rocambole (hardneck) garlic that has that lovely garlic scape: the thin leafless flower stalk that is a spring wonder in fresh cooking. At the end of the stalk, or sometimes in the middle of the neck, little cloves can sometimes be found. These are called bulbils. They are also edible, though getting the skins off cloves the size of peas is not what I call a fun task.
Anyway, the experimentation: I have mentioned that I tend to let certain garlic plants “naturalize” in an unobtrusive part of the garden. A couple of years back, I set some sprouty garlic in the tomato and root veg beds so I can use their greens. These greens happen for a long time, and are often the first to shoot up in the spring, so they are quite welcome. I also pull green garlic at will from this pile. After a couple of years, though, I tend to rework entire beds, and this year I pulled up a clump to see what was happening. This is what happens if you let 3 garlic sprouts stay in the ground for almost three seasons:
Bulbils are another experiment I have tried. Do you plant onion sets? It’s the same concept: the little set onions are 2nd year onions that were not allowed to get large their first season (they’re not thinned so they don’t get big. You can do this too with your onion seed.). You may not have ready access to these bulbils, but like the sprouts, they will take more than one season to get large. I planted these babies in a row last fall (planted about 1/2″ apart) when I planted the regular garlic. I have pulled them up, am now curing them, and I will soon fool them by cleaning off their dirt, roots, and dried greens and sticking them in a paper bag in the fridge for a while. I will then plant them back in the greenhouse beds in early September at the proper distance apart (5-6″). We’ll see what happens next: I am hoping it is warm enough in there that they can be harvested in early spring, like my last batch.
Softneck candidates for naturalizing, left, and bulbils, center. Right: Bulbils after one season. Next year they’ll be normal sized.
And then the regular, fall-planted garlic. I stretch that window by planting a big huge batch in late October, but I continue to plant cloves as I get them. I planted a lot around Jan. 1st in the greenhouse from some garlic I got at my co-op. This is still in the greenhouse and I should harvest it soon-ish (no rush). I also planted the same garlic in the outdoor beds at the beginning of May: this stuff is just now producing scapes, so it has about another month in the dirt before I can harvest it. Then there is the regular expensive garlic I purchased a couple of years back from Filaree: I haven’t been too happy with the results of all of it. Taste-wise, sure, but dang nothing got terribly large, so this year I need to eat it all and then select only the super producers to plant this fall. But you want to know the best, biggest garlic I planted? Stuff I got at the Union Square farmers’ market in NYC late last fall. It’s a German rocambole. HUGE!! (You should have seen how my suitcase smelled coming back from that trip.)
So: in summation. If you are willing, you need not only plant garlic at one time in the autumn. A many-pronged approach works well with all of the Allium family. By doing this, you relieve yourself of the worry of one bad event wiping out your entire crop (as happened to me last wet August with many of my second planting of onions). Plus, it’s fun to see what happens!