Garlic scapes! Three weeks to bulb harvest!

Garlic beds looking good. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Garlic beds looking good.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

July 2018 update: This is one of my most popular posts. I’ve written much else about garlic too. Just put “garlic” in the search box and you can read much more.

Our garlic scapes are just starting to appear! Garlic scapes are the firm, round flower stems that grow from hard-neck garlic, starting (on lour farm) to appear 3 weeks before bulb harvest, as the bulbs size up. If these are removed, the garlic bulbs will be bigger and also easier to braid, if you want braids from hardneck garlic. Contrary to ideas mentioned by some sources, leaving scapes in does not increase the storage life. Most people who remove scapes cut them where they emerge from the leaves. We prefer to pull ours, to get the most out. Scapes also make a visually attractive early-season  crop.

Day-length as well as accumulated growing degree days determines when scapes appear as well as when bulbs are ready to harvest. Hot weather above 91°F (33°C) ends bulb growth and drying down starts. It’s irreversible. It is important to get plenty of good rapid growth before hot weather arrives. Garlic can double in size in its last month of growth, and removing the scapes (the hard central stem) of hardneck garlic can increase the bulb size 25%.

This is a good time to be paying more attention to your garlic crop, and what better way than walking through pulling scapes?

Harvesting scapes

  • We harvest ours two or three times a week, for three weeks in May.
  • Late morning is a good time to pull scapes (or early afternoon). The wound heals quickly then, reducing the risk of disease, and the water-loss from the plant.
  • We don’t wait for the top of the scape to loop around (as seen in the photo to the left), as the scapes begin to toughen and reduce the final yield of the garlic.
  • As soon as the pointed caps of the scape have cleared the plant center, grasp the round stem just below the cap and pull slowly and steadily vertically upwards. The scape emerges with a strange popping sound and you have the full length of the scape, including the tender lower portion. See the photo from A Way to Garden at the end of this post.
  • It’s an enjoyable task – a stand-up job, and there’s a friendly competition to see who can get the longest scape. (Encourages everyone to perfect their technique.)
  • Sometimes the scapes will snap rather than pull right out, but the remainder of the stem can be pulled next time, when it has grown taller.
  • We gather them into buckets, with the scapes upright, and put a little water in the bucket.
  • The scapes are aligned, easy to bunch or cut up.
  • They store well in a refrigerator for months if needed.
  • Scapes can be chopped and used in stir-fries, pesto, garlic butter, pickles and other
    dishes in place of bulb garlic. They can also be frozen for out of season use. Searching the Internet will reveal lots of recipes.
  • Scapes sell in bunches of six to ten.
  • 1 acre (0.4 ha) of hardneck garlic produces 300-500 lbs (136-226 kg) of scapes.
  • Take the opportunity to remove any diseased plants from the patch at the same time.

20While harvesting scapes, monitor the plants for signs of maturity. Garlic is ready to harvest when the sixth leaf down is starting to brown on 50 percent of the crop. See Ron Engeland’s excellent book Growing Great Garlic for more on this. For some years I was confused about which was the “sixth leaf,” and I confess that I was counting up instead of down. The point is to have five green leaves still on the plant, to provide the protection of five intact skins over the bulb. Each leaf corresponds to one wrapper on the cloves or bulb; as the leaf dies, the skin rots away. Keeping five intact skins on the garlic is a challenge in our humid climate, and because we are not shipping our garlic anywhere, it seems less crucial. So I also use a second method of deciding when to harvest: I pull three or four plants and cut the bulbs across horizontally and look at the center of the bulb. When air space becomes visible between the round stem and the cloves, it’s time for the garlic harvest. Usually that’s June 7–June 14 for our main crop of hardneck garlic, but it has been as early as May 30, and as late as June 18. Harvesting too early means smaller bulbs (harvesting way too early means an undifferentiated bulb and lots of wrappers that then shrivel up). Harvesting too late means that the bulbs may “shatter” or have an exploded look, and not store as well.

This is also a good time to remove the mulch to help the bulbs dry down, and to prevent fungal diseases.

In our rotation, the spring broccoli is usually next door to the garlic, and we move the old garlic mulch to the broccoli to top up the mulch there. It helps us stay on track with getting the broccoli weeded too.

The value of mulching garlic and how-to

  • Organic mulches will protect the cloves from cold winter temperatures, and frost-heaving to some extent.
  • In the South organic mulches keep the soil cooler once the weather starts to heat up. It is hard to add mulch after the garlic has started to grow.
  • We roll big round bales of spoiled hay over our beds immediately after planting in November.
  • Once we have ensured the shoots are all growing free of the mulch, we leave the garlic plot alone until late February,
  • In February, we start weeding (and repeat once a month for four months).
  • Weed control in garlic is important -Weeds can decrease yield by as much as 50%. First kill the spring cool-weather weeds, then kill the summer weeds.

Understanding garlic stages of growth

It is important to establish garlic in good time so that roots and vegetative growth are as big as possible before the plant turns its attention to making bulbs. The start of garlic bulb formation (and the end of leaf growth) is triggered by day length exceeding
13 hours (April 10 here at 38°N). Air temperatures above 68°F (20°C) and soil temperatures over 60°F (15.5°C) are secondary triggers.

We all have 12 hours of daylight on the spring equinox. After that, the farther north you go, the longer the day length is. Northern latitudes reach 13 hours of daylight before southern ones, but garlic does not start bulbing there at 13 hours because temperatures are not yet high enough. For example, in Michigan, bulbing begins in mid-May. In warmer areas, temperatures cause harvest dates to be earlier than in cooler areas at the same latitude. We have no control over when garlic starts to make bulbs, only over how large and healthy the leaves are when bulbing starts, and how large the final bulbs can be. Small plants here on April 11 will only make small bulbs!  Watering should stop two weeks before harvest to help the plants dry down.

8 thoughts on “Garlic scapes! Three weeks to bulb harvest!”

  1. Hi Pam,

    I very much enjoy reading your posts. I am located in Stafford, Virginia. I planted shallots for the first time last fall. I do not know the variety. They are growing great and are now developing ‘scapes’ just like garlic. Should I cut these off as done for garlic?

    Thank you


    1. Glad you enjoy my blog. When shallots develop flower stems, I think these are more like onion flower stems: round and hollow. I believe they should be cut as soon as you see them. I don’t think you can harvest them as a crop and still get good shallots. If anyone reading this knows different, please chime in. I’m not very experienced with shallots. I do know that with bulb onions, any that develop a flower stem will not grow very big onions nor store well. With onions it’s best to nip off the flower bud as soon as you see it, and cut out the flower stem as soon as you come by with a knife in your hand.

  2. I learn so much reading your blog! I’d always waited to harvest my garlic until the tops fell over, like onions. I’ll try it this way this year. No scapes yet that I’ve seen, here in western Goochland.

    I’m growing potato onions, too (surrounded by garlic to keep out the voles – so far, it’s working). They’re sending up flower stalks. Based on what I read in your response to the first comment, I’m going to take off those flower talks right away. Thanks again!

    1. Chris, maybe you have a softneck variety of garlic? They don’t have scapes at all (normally). Yes, don’t wait for the tops to fall over, the cloves will have started to separate from each other by then, and the bulbs won’t store as well. Glad you like my blog.

  3. Hi, our garlic did not grow scapes last year which was very odd! Is there something we should be doing to help them grow scapes?

    1. Do you know what variety you had? Did you buy new seed garlic? I’m wondering if maybe you had a softneck variety. Only hardnecks have scapes. When did you plant it? Where are you located and what is the usual planting date there? No answers yet, only more questions!

    1. It’s very unusual! Did you plant it later than usual? Did it get full sun? Was the condition of the soil poorer or better than usual? How did other growers locally do? I just don’t know the answer, but maybe we can figure it out.

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