Harvesting Garlic

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, July 25, 1997

We harvested our garlic this week. Over a three day period, between rainstorms, Suzanne and I pulled up five long beds full of these sturdy plants with strapy blue green leaves, as mockingbirds sang in a nearby apple tree. It was enjoyable work. The fluffy soil allowed the bulbs to be lifted out easily, their purple and white beauty showing through the dirt. After shaking and brushing off the dark, well-composted soil that was clinging to the roots, we put the garlic in bushel baskets. A nearly intoxicating aroma surrounded us.

By the time we were done, we had hundreds of pounds of garlic. We are very pleased with the quantity and quality of this year's crop.

Harvest time for garlic is critical. Each of the long leaves which wraps around the stem at its base, becomes a wrapper for the bulb of garlic under the soil. The number of green leaves remaining on the plant indicates how many layers remain on the bulb. If all the leaves dry up while the plant is in the soil, all the wrappers disappear. If they dry after harvest, however, each one leaves another tough layer of protection around the bulb. Three to five bulb wrappers are suggested for best storage, and, since a wrapper or two may be lost in harvesting and cleaning, we harvest when there are about six leaves remaining on most of the plants. The garlic should stay in the ground as long as possible, but if too many layers of wrapper dry up before harvest, the spaces between the cloves are open to invasion by soil bacteria and fungi, which can cause rot.

It is important to get the freshly-picked bulbs into the shade immediately and to hang them in an airy place so they dry quickly and evenly.

Our garlic now hangs from the rafters in the breezeway, tied in bundles of ten bulbs. It will be just fine there until fall, when we plant cloves from the medium-sized bulbs. What's left we store in a dry place where it won't freeze during the winter. Sometimes we cut off the tops and sometimes we don't. Garlic keeps very well when it's been harvested at the right time and cured properly. Given these conditions, it will store nearly a whole year.

Garlic is a very easy crop to grow. We stuck cloves from last year's harvest into fertile garden beds in late October and mulched them thickly with hay. During the winter the cloves grew strong root systems. The hay kept most weeds from growing, but let the young, pointed garlic leaves poke through easily this spring. In April and May, while we were working so hard to get other crops established, the garlic, large and vigorous, was quite an inspiration. In late spring we did a bit of weeding. In June, we snapped off the flower buds in order to direct more energy to the bulbs below.

We eat lots of garlic because of its wonderful flavor. It's delicious with pasta and greens, in fresh tomato sauces, and with eggs, potatoes or beans. We'll reserve at least seven bulbs a week for us to eat, and about half of the harvest for planting this fall. The rest, mostly the biggest bulbs, we'll sell at the farmers markets where the hardneck variety has become increasingly popular over the years.

Garlic or allium sativum, is a local crop. It adapts to the local soil, and does well when it is replanted in the same space in the garden for several years. For best results, it's good to plant garlic which originates in your region. We started with bulbs from New York State, and have replanted this strain here for six years.

For at least 10,000 years, humans have enjoyed garlic. From ancient China, Egypt and India, through Biblical times and Greek and Roman cultures, down to the present, people have used garlic to treat a variety of illnesses including cancer, heart disease and leprosy, as well as infected wounds and dysentery.

Modern research shows that garlic is a powerful antibiotic, provides at least three beneficial effects for the heart, helps eliminate lead and other toxic heavy metals from the body, has anti-tumor properties, and is useful in treating leprosy and AIDS. It's our garlic's wonderful flavor, however, that keeps us growing and eating it, and keeps our customers coming back for more.

You can grow some garlic, too. Look for nice bulbs at a local farmers market, hang it up until fall and then plant it when you set out other bulbs like daffodils and tulips. Next July you'll harvest your own and will have started an exciting, healthful and flavorful adventure.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.