Spring is coming to a close, and the harvest has begun – hello garlic! Now is the time for gathering the fruits of late winter planting that have bloomed in spring’s abundant rain and gradual warmth. Garlic is one of the first things we harvest, and braiding their stems is a truly a treat.
Braiding garlic is one example of the joy’s of responsibility. Really, it is not a task that you have to do. But it is definitely a task that I want to do. It is a beautiful blend of preservation and creativity, of need and want. I hang the braids in my dining room, my kitchen, my mud room and the crunchy decoration fills blank walls in a Laura Ingalls kind of way. It connects me to older times of hand shelling bushels of peas and churning butter. We are braiding the garlic that will season our pastas, salsas, and cast iron pizzas. But in the meantime, it will grace my walls with memories of chilly evenings bedding them down in hay.
The beginning of May breaks us into garden mode: the double checking of preservation materials and small batch harvests. We spent many evenings with my toddler doing the dinner dance around his quesadillas and happily crunching lettuce and peas in the garden after. So far, a battle I am not mad about losing. Cilantro is having lots of fun sprouting quickly after each harvest, mostly because I didn’t know that it prefers winter. (Spoiler!) In the next few weeks, we’ll see the potatoes yellow and wither letting us know they are ready to be dug, and onions bending their necks to be pulled.
Early May harvests:
- Last of peas: In zone 8a, we grew “Alaska Early”, “Shelling Peas”, and “Snap Peas” and had the most success with snap. We ate them fresh with hummus, and sizzled them into Asian stir-fry’s and fresh salads.
- Lettuce: We grew mostly head lettuce and picked baby leaves for continual harvest. This year, we learned that a lack of nitrogen can cause lettuce to go bitter! Next year, we’ll interplant our lettuce around our peas, which are nitrogen fixers.
- Cilantro: Start and plant closer to Christmas and protect from frosts!
- Cherry tomatoes
- Onions: The necks of onions will start to fall at a 90 degree angle when they are ready to be harvested, and will most likely not be ready all at one time.
- Potatoes: Look for yellowing or withering plants. Blackening stems is a sign of rot! Read more about identifying potato diseases.
- Carrots: In zone 8a, we tried to grow short and round varieties of carrots because our winters are so short and not so chilly. These grow faster and grew well between our potato plant rows in raised beds!
The harvesting of garlic is definitely one of nature’s sign of transitioning seasons. There’s a whole category of nature’s transitions termed, “phenology”. This concept is something we’ve connected with more now that we own our own land. We began to notice repeating events happening at the same time of the year and wondered if this was really a thing. Turns out, it is! Phenology is cyclical blooming, and migrations, and sounds of awakening birds and bugs. These events are all different based on location and season, but its something we’ve begun to track for ourselves to celebrate, especially when the garlic is being harvested:
- The night hawks and owls arrive in the cedar trees
- The swarm of june bugs
- The first cicadas
- The evening whippoorwill returns
Drying and Storing Garlic
Garlic has two types – soft neck and hard neck. Soft neck is most similar to what you find in grocery stores, with its flaky white skin and large, overlapping cloves. Hard neck develops a thick stem in the center that grows up as a “scape” that later produces a flower. Soft neck garlic is easier to braid because of the absence of the scape.
Once pulled from the ground, the garlic should lay in a cool, dark, ventilated space to dry for at least a week. For us, this is a wire rack in our mudroom that doubles as our seed starting area. After some time, the necks will begin to be bendy – it will be too stiff to braid otherwise.
The necks and roots can be trimmed, or, you can braid and store them for months hanging. When garlic is ready to braid, it is close to scentless. When it is starting to spoil, it will begin to smell like garlic again.
- Scissors or pairing knife
- Thread or string
How to braid garlic
- Start by taking three heads and placing them all in a line. The farthest left head will wrap around the middle and right head and cross back over itself to start the braid.
- If you want an easier route, you can tie all three heads together with thread or string to start.
- Add a fourth head in the middle. The newly added heads will always start their necks in the middle. Braid the far left neck over the top and then move the middle two to the side like a normal braid.
- Add another head, braid right neck over the middle necks (and new neck) and shift the middle to the side.
- Continue to add heads until the desired length – I use about 15 heads in a braid. Braid the remainder of the necks and tie with a thread or string at the end.
- Add a loop to the back of the string on the braid and hang.
The braids! Aren’t they lovely? If I could grow fields of garlic, I would. I told my husband to prepare himself for double to the amount the following year. And a phenology delight? A beautiful braid of garlic just in time to gift for mother’s day…
If you happened to grow hard neck garlic, be sure to check out our post on “Garlic Scape Pesto” for a tasty, season treat that only hard neck can provide!