Garlic harvest: Tips and tricks for Canberra gardeners

Owen Pidgeon
Pull it up: Chiara Cattaneo and Sara Bigatti from Bergamo, Italy help harvest garlic at Loriendale.
Pull it up: Chiara Cattaneo and Sara Bigatti from Bergamo, Italy help harvest garlic at Loriendale. 

For lovers of garlic the time has arrived to purchase new-season cured garlic for those many dishes that welcome this amazing flavour.  Garlic has been grown for millennia across the Mediterranean, throughout China and India, so it is used widely by people of nearly all backgrounds. We also use it mixed with apple cider vinegar, as an organic drench for our sheep. It is also a good antiseptic. As we remember our early Diggers of World War I, we can recall  how the nurses used to dress their wounds with a sphagnum moss poultice soaked in garlic juice.  

Garlic is a long-term crop which has needed to be growing for at least seven months to produce big, juicy bulbs. We planted our garlic in mid-April to allow them to become well established with shoots and a developing root system before the winter frosts hit. If you are growing garlic then it is now time to check on progress towards its harvest.

In late spring, when the temperatures shoot up, the plants stop producing leafy growth and put all their energy into bulb growth. November temperatures have played a big role in the maturing of garlic bulbs, with the super-high temperatures in the second week of the month followed by the heavy rain. By the way, as you check out your plants, you can simply count the number of long leaves of a plant and know that it has produced a bulb with the same number of cloves.

Hard to be beat: Garlic has so many uses in the kitchen.
Hard to be beat: Garlic has so many uses in the kitchen. 

It is time to harvest garlic when the stems of the plants dry out and lose their green colours. The outer skin of a mature garlic bulb becomes quite thin and dry also. Harvest should take place when the plants are well matured and dry, so that the final curing of the garlic is well underway. 

The hard-neck varieties are the first to reach maturity and the bulbs are usually larger than the later maturing soft-neck varieties.  The hard-neck ones produce a stiff stalk with a curling loopy end, called a scape. The little bulbil at its extremity are like clones of the mother plant and can be planted out later, just like the usual garlic clove.

Soft-neck varieties have a stronger flavour and keep for longer after harvest. The Australian white is a good long-keeping soft-neck variety.

Taste time: Beef rougaille with garlic.
Taste time: Beef rougaille with garlic. 

As with cereal growers, garlic growers will be watching the weather forecasts closely. An afternoon storm that just blows in will mean that you should leave the plants to dry off for a few more days. However,  do not delay the harvest too long, or plants will move into the over-mature stage and begin discarding the bulbs' skins. Bulbs left in the ground for too long can also become sunburnt and begin opening up, meaning the bulb cannot be kept in storage for as long.

Harvest with a garden fork  to dig up the entire bulb and some surrounding soil, which can be easily brushed off. If you try to pull up the garlic just by tugging at the stem, the strong root mat will hold on you will end up with broken stems and damaged bulbs.  Keeping the stems intact with the bulbs will allow the bulb to draw back the goodness and nutrients remaining in the leaves as it cures. . 

Lay  the harvested garlic on flat wooden or slated plastic trays. Do not stack too many layers on top. They need to aerate well during drying/curing. Keep them in a shaded but well-ventilated spot, either indoors or outside under the likes of a gazebo that will protect them  from rain. After  a week of curing, trim off long roots with secateurs to prevent them drawing in any moisture during any humid days. 

Plaiting  the garlic can be done after two weeks of curing, when the leaves are still pliable.  Hang the plaits up in a breezy, sheltered  spot to allow another 2-3 weeks of curing. For all the other garlic plants, when fully cured, trim off the stems to 20mm above the top of the bulb and clean off any remaining dirt.  Use your thumbs to rub off the loose soil and rough outer skin to leave a beautiful white or pink garlic bulb ready for display or storage.

Freshly harvested garlic is still wonderful to use in cooking but to get to the stage where you will have a supply of good, mature garlic for several months, you should plan to cure the bulk of your crop.  

Beef rougaille with garlic

800g diced beef
2 tbsp grapeseed oil
3 garlic cloves
2 large onions
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp thyme
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
3 dried chillies
500g diced tomatoes
300g carrots, sliced
4 spring garlic stems/leaves 
1 tbsp fresh coriander
salt and pepper to season

Grind pepper and sprinkle salt over the diced meat and set aside to season for 30 minutes. Dice the onions and crush the garlic. Place the onions and garlic in the pan with the chopped chillies and cook until the onion is translucent. Add in the meat and cook for a further minute to seal the meat's  juices, stirring frequently. 

Add the tomatoes, carrots and herbs and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the meat is tender. Add finely chopped spring garlic stems and coriander and gently cook for a further 2 minutes then serve with rice.

This week in the garden 

• Plant out annual herbs, rows of baby carrots and beetroot.

• Plant a selection of leafy salad greens for mid-summer cropping.

• Plant a row of climbing beans and row of cucumbers and set up climbing frames using wooden stakes crossed with wire mesh or bamboo poles. This will provide good ventilation and space for the plants to produce well.

• Dig out 1 metre round shallow holes, mounded up at the side and fill with compost for growing pumpkins, rockmelons and baby watermelons. Plant five seeds in each round bed and thin out the two weakest after they germinate.

• Tie up tomato bushes every 40cm and remove laterals that are beginning to appear at the base of new branches.

• Mulching strawberries with pine needles will minimise visits of slugs and snails. Check nightly salad vegetables for slugs and remove by hand.

• Take time to mulch all gardens well in preparation for the hot days of summer. 

Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.