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Harvesting garlic

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How do you know when to harvest your garlic? asks PENNY WOODWARD.

One of the questions I am often asked is how do you tell when to harvest your garlic? And the answer isn’t simple.

Garlic generally needs between 7 and 8 months of growth before it’s ready to harvest. So if you planted it in March, then in early October you should keep an eye on your plants. You will notice that some of the lower leaves will begin to die off and when there are only 4 to 6 green leaves left, then you are getting close to harvest time. If the garlic you are growing is a softneck (also known as non-bolting) then this is the only external sign you will see. Australian White, Tochliavri and Italian White are examples of softneck cultivars. If your garlic is a hardneck (these can be weakly or strongly bolting) then observing the development of the scape (flower stem) will also help.  But here it gets even more complicated.

Many of the hardneck cultivars grown in Australia are in the Turban Group. Cultivars such as Italian Purple, Glamour, Monaro Purple and Ontos Purple are all examples of this group. They produce a scape late in the growth cycle with a typical turban shaped umbel (flowerhead). Once this scape appears, you can harvest the scape to eat or leave it on to continue growing. Unlike some other garlic groups, scape growth doesn’t have much effect on bulb size for Turban cultivars. Once these scapes appear then you will know you need to harvest within a few weeks. These bulbs can go from nearly ready, to collapsing and having split skins within a week, so watch them closely. If you are growing a cultivar in the Creole Group (Rojo de Castro, Dynamite Purple) then these also produce scapes late in the growth cycle, but if you leave the scapes to grow it will affect bulb size. Cut them off and eat them. But as with the Turban Group, once these scapes appear you will need to harvest the bulbs within a few weeks.

Other garlics are in the Rocambole and Purple Stripe Groups. These garlics produce strong scapes early in the growth cycle, with 360 to 720 degree loops in the stem (Rocambole) or 270 degree loops (Purple Stripe). Even though the scapes have appeared, the bulbs will still be a couple of months from harvest. The growth of scapes and umbels can seriously adversely affect the size of bulbs in these Groups, so it is best to remove the scapes. If you have several plants, then leave a few on so that you can see the beautiful loops and curls, and collect the bulbils that form in the umbel. These bulbils can be eaten, or planted the following year to produce more garlic.

The final test to see if your garlic should be dug up, is to pull the soil away from the top of the bulb and feel with your finger. If the bulb is a reasonable size and you can feel the ridges of the cloves, then the garlic is ready to harvest. Do not water in the week or more before harvest. This allows the skins to dry a little and form a nice firm cover. Dig your plants with a fork, brush off any excess dirt and hang them in bunches of 5 to 10 in a dry, airy place out of direct sunlight for 4-6 weeks. The garlic will now be cured and ready for long term storage.

Penny Woodward is a regular contributor to ABC Organic Gardener magazine and the author of Garlic: An organic guide to knowing, growing and using garlic, from Australian Whites and Tasmanian Purples to Korean Reds and Shandongs. To find out more about Penny and her new book visit