Generosity, Gratitude, Garlic
Updated: Mar 24
As we near the end of July, one of our much anticipated chores is lifting the garlic, curing it, and braiding it for the next year’s use. Garlic is a crucial crop on the homestead, both for its role in seasoning our food and for its potent impact as food medicine. The bulbs we lift in July will be used all through the fall, winter, and spring, until the new crop is ready for harvest.
The garlic heads start out as single cloves, planted during November of the previous year. Like the Dutch Yellow Shallots we grow in the homestead's growing dome, the garlic is started when the other plants are dormant. They put down roots in the fall and then lie dormant through the winter, awaiting spring sunshine. By the time the middle of July arrives, the first few leaves on each stalk have started to brown, signaling that the bulbs are nearly ready. Judging when to stop watering the garlic is both art and science, dictated by the moisture and temperature of the year and better learned through experience than description. As we gain that experience, however, there are a few guidelines that help us know when the time has arrived:
The first few leaves above the bulb yellow and die back
The tops may tip under their own weight
The test bulb, dug up or revealed by pulling away the soil, shows the clear shape of the cloves beneath the papers, without any indication of the papers beginning to split.
The last indicator is the most important because a well-developed head will have plump cloves, but an over developed head will begin splitting away into separate heads. These split heads don’t keep well and are susceptible to pest and disease problems. A few weeks before we expect harvest to begin, I pull the soil back from a bulb and rub my thumb across the smooth papers. If the cloves developing underneath feel full and round, we stop watering the garlic bed and allow the tops to dry down for a week or two. This gives the bulbs time to pull the last nutrition from the leaves and allows the soil to dry before harvest. During the drying down phase, most of the tops will tip over and continue yellowing.
One year, Kindra and I lifted the bulbs on a hot July morning while the sweat ran into our eyes and dripped off our faces. We vowed never again to do it during the heat of the day. The following year I did it in the cool evening after the other chores were done. That time I lost the light before I could finish harvesting.
The lesson learned through both experiences was that the harvest can wait a few hours or a few days until the timing is right. Lifting these bulbs from the soil after so many months is like taking part in a miracle. Out of our sight, one clove has transformed into many, each wrapped carefully in papers that will preserve it for the year ahead. This isn’t a chore: it’s a celebration.
After we have turned up all the heads, we gather them in baskets and buckets to be ferried from the garden to the shady drying racks.
Extended sunshine damages the cloves, so they need to be in a dark, airy place while they cure. Lifting small bunches, we lay each handful across the racks to dry.
Safe in the shade of the wild cherry and crab apple boughs, the bulbs rest until the dirt that had adhered to them crumbles, the tops are completely brown, and the roots are brittle.
When they are ready, Kindra and I use soft, dry washcloths to gently rub away the dirty outer papers and scrub off the roots. We move them, one at a time, from the dirty pile to the clean until they are all ready for braiding.
Silverskin Rose garlic is known for its easy braiding and good keeping quality. Once the heads are braided together and hung on racks in the sunroom, they will keep well into the next spring before they begin sprouting. We’ve just been participants in an everyday celebration—of bounty that comes out of the rich soil, production of a good crop, and provision for the next year. We celebrate the generosity of the garden, our gratitude to the Provider, and garlic hanging up to dry.