The plaiting is finished and the aroma of fresh garlic fills my kitchen. I’ve had a nice crop of garlic this year and it always brings a sense of satisfaction to harvest my annual supply of organic garlic bulbs for cooking. Garlic is one of the easiest things to grow in the home garden but people seem to overlook it when planting out the veggie patch.
It does take a while – 6 months to be precise – to grow. So you do need to have a section of the garden tied up for this amount of time. But it’s during the cooler months, often when there’s not a lot of other things growing in the garden, that you grow it.
This year I went against tradition and saw some great results. Some traditionalists will tell you to plant your garlic cloves on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) and then harvest them on the summer solstice (the longest day of the year).
This is how I’ve usually grown my garlic previously, but this time I took the advice of another gardener and planted my garlic close to the autumn equinox, when daylight hours equal night time hours. This occurs around 20/21st March for us in Australia. It means that you can start harvesting earlier in spring, rather than waiting until summer time. In cold regions it’s often best to delay planting due to freezing temperatures.
We’ve had some fairly mild temperatures this season and lots of rain, so conditions have been favourable and I added a good helping of compost before planting. The garlic grew solidly and steadily during winter. I experimented with half a row planted on the traditional winter solstice for comparison. Those planted later haven’t performed nearly as well as my earlier ones.
The mature garlic was left in the ground until much later than I planned because I’d been busy, but the plants still looked quite healthy. Once the tops of my garlic started to die down that was the sign to harvest.
I’m often asked how do you know when to harvest garlic and sometimes it can be a bit tricky to tell. Sometimes garlic will flower and sometimes it won’t. So flowering is not always a reliable sign that’s it’s ready. Sometimes if you have particularly wet weather then bulbs will start to rot in the ground before maturity and the tops will die off. So even the tops dying down is not a reliable sign. It’s a matter of knowing your soil, your conditions and your garlic. Given that your garden has good drainage and won’t rot the bulbs then dying back of the leaves is the best indicator. Just have a little dig around the bulb without removing it to check that all is good and the bulb has developed to full size.
Leave the plants to harden off for about a week by not giving them any water. This dries them out and helps with future storage. Lifting wet soggy bulbs can cause all sorts of problems with rotting later on.
Lift the bulbs from the ground by loosening the soil with a pitch fork, making sure you don’t get too close to the bulbs and stab them. Gently lift the soil so that the garlic bulbs can be pulled and removed. Then just shake off any loose soil from the plants. Leave some soil on at this point, it’ll get removed later. Don’t wash the bulbs now because you’ll increase risk of rotting.
The next step is to leave your garlic to dry for about a week in an airy open spot, under cover. I left mine on a rack under the pergola. You’ll notice that the bulbs become quite hard in this time. This is an important step to make sure that they store for longer. Once the bulbs have hardened, you can remove any excess soil with a brush. This comes off much easier now than doing it straight after lifting them from the soil, when you could risk damaging the soft bulbs.
Once the bulbs have been hardened and cleaned you can simply plait the leaves together like a French braid.
Start with 3 bulbs and plait in the normal way.
Working from the outside, gather up another garlic bulb with each fold that you make along the edge.
Keep gathering more bulbs until you’ve plaited them all in and you’ve made a long braid.
Tie the end and hang it up in the kitchen so it’s always within reach for cooking.
Photography by Maddie.