Bright sun and a balmy breeze – that’s what newly dug garlic appreciates. And as if autumn knows it, that’s just the sort of pre-winter weather this glorious season usually brings. But a good long cure in the sun isn’t all garlic requires if it’s to store well through winter. It needs to be carefully dug – not pulled.
In my haste to get it out of the ground a couple of weeks back, I forsook the fork and pulled hard on the tops of a few plants and – you guessed it – off they snapped. The topless garlic may store but I’m not risking it. I’ll set these bulbs on the window ledge where they’ll get used first. The others have had the soil shaken from their roots and have then been spread out on a frame of chicken wire with a tarpaulin on hand to cover them at night from the dew and to shelter them should it rain. Once the tops are thoroughly dried off (crispy to the point where they rattle when disturbed) I’ll plait them into strings.
I say ‘plait’ but, in fact, not all garlics are suitable for plaiting so if you want lovely strings of bulbs hanging in the kitchen over winter, make sure you plant the right variety. The ones to go for are the soft-necked garlics such as ‘Printanor’. ‘Printanor’ shouldn’t be difficult to obtain as it’s one of New Zealand’s most popular varieties. It’s also worth investing in because it produces more cloves than many other garlics and it’s a very good keeper. Elephant garlic (which is actually a leek and not a garlic at all) is also a good one for plaiting. And if you like a hint of garlic rather than that full pungency that some people can’t get enough of, elephant is the way to go because it’s milder than its true garlic cousins. It’s also disease-resistant, easy to peel and an excellent keeper.
If you’ve grown hard-necked garlics such as ‘Rockenboli’, you’ll have trouble plaiting them because, as their name suggests, they have a stiff central stem which won’t soften over time. Don’t despair, though, because once these garlics are thoroughly dry they can be tied together in gorgeous bunches (I use Trade Aid twine for the purpose and it looks fabulous) and hung up as decorative edibles.
‘Rockenboli’ produces bulbs with pretty purple stripes, and its cloves tend to be larger than those of other varieties. Along with other hard-necked garlics, it also boasts strong flavours so you’re likely use less of it in cooking – a great saving on space if your garden is on the small size. Gardeners in regions with very cold winters often grow ‘Rockenboli’ because it fares well even in the chilliest of conditions.
As with onions and shallots, garlic is ready to harvest when its tops begin to wither and turn papery brown. But if, like me, you seldom get enough summer heat to see this happen, don’t fret. Lift the bulbs in autumn, regardless, and leave them to dry out in what summer sun you do have. If the tops are still not crispy dry by the time the cold weather sets in, set the bulbs on a rack in your greenhouse or loosely (never tightly) gather them together with a sting and hang them upside down inside a dry shed or in the house for however many weeks it takes for the leaves and stems to desicate.
And one last garlic tip (which is so simple most gardeners forget to do it): count the number of bulbs you harvest and make a note of it. That way, you’ll know how many cloves to plant out next season!