Having spent much of late July and most of August harvesting, curing and cleaning garlic, I am happy to report that the 2016 garlic crop is now ready and available for sale!
I raise three different varieties: German Red, Russian and Inchelium Red garlic. The German Red and the Russian are both hard necked rocambole varieties (A. sativum var. ophioscorodon) and the Inchelium Red is a soft necked artichoke variety (A. sativum var. sativum). The German Red is the variety I raise in the largest quantities. The Inchelium Red is the only softneck and I generally braid some of it.
My garlic is planted in mid October, mulched heavily with dried leaves and wood shavings and left for the winter. It begins to emerge just as the soil begins to warm in the spring at about the same time as the crocuses. The hard necked varieties develop a scape or flower stalk which I remove when they have developed sufficiently to create a loop – if I snap them off any sooner, the scape will often continue to grow and I would rather have that energy go into bulb development. The scapes are edible. I use them similarly to green onions. They are great in soups and sautés. We are quite distant from major population centers, so it has been difficult to develop a market for the large number of scapes that are produced here, but in some places scapes are highly sought after. Besides using them our own cooking, I have discovered that my sheep enjoy them as well.
Weeding is critical and can have a major impact on the size of the bulbs, as can soil fertility. I leave the mulch in place in the spring and this helps to reduce the amount of weeding required.
In mid to late summer depending on the growing conditions, the leaves of the garlic plants begin to die back, starting with the lowest leaves first. When about 3 of the leaves have died back on each variety, I begin to dig a few bulbs to see if that variety is ready to harvest. The soft necked garlic is always the first to be harvested. I try to harvest when the soil is dry because this makes curing and cleaning much easier, but this isn’t always an option in our temperate climate.
I tie the garlic in bunches of about 20 bulbs or so and hang the bunches in our barn to cure for a couple weeks. Then I bring the bunches back down and prepare them for sale. The Inchelium Red is sorted by size and condition before the tops are trimmed in order to select the ones I will use for braiding. The rest are trimmed (roots and tops) as soon as I bring down the bunches.
Since reading GROWING GREAT GARLIC by Ron Engeland, I have been using a simple tool described in the book for sorting the garlic by size.
It may seem ironic to put the very best quality garlic back into the ground, but by saving and planting the best garlic each year, I have continued to improve my crop year after year and have developed varieties that are perfectly suited to my growing conditions…and to receiving ribbons at the county fair 🙂