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.

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Too much rain! But garlic scapes to cheer us up.

Having plenty of 5 gallon buckets is important. Credit Bridget Aleshire

Having plenty of 5 gallon buckets is important.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

We had 4.6″ rain over a few days and nights. We had to dig trenches across the potato patch to drain out the water, which had reached the tops of the hills (thank goodness we got the first hilling done before the rain!) We also dug “:flood abatement” ditches at the low end of our raised bed area. Even so, we have been really restricted in where we could work. I tell people to harvest or weed at the dry ends of the beds, and back out as soon as their feet start to sink in mud. I don’t want us to compact the soil and make future drainage worse, and give the roots have a hard time growing. To use the rainy weather, we washed our work gloves and started tackling our “Stuck Buckets” stacks. I don’t think we unstuck any at all last year. We had about 50 or so stuck in pairs or triplets. After wrangling them and trying various back-muscle-risking maneuvers, we run them through our commercial dishwasher. When the plastic is hot, the wet buckets come apart more easily.

Blueberry bush with green berries. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Blueberry bush with green berries.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We’ve had to be creative in finding work we can do. Tempting as it is to take a big nap, I know we will be scrambling later, as soon as it warms up and dries out. So yesterday we put our blueberry netting up. The berries are still green, in some cases they are still blossoms, but it’s one job we won’t have to do later. We’ve also pre-emptively been organizing our drip tape and setting up systems we won’t need for at least a week.

This is how we usually sow our leek seedlings in an outdoor nursery bed. Credit Kathryn Simmons

This is how we usually sow our leek seedlings in an outdoor nursery bed.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We’re also starting our leek transplanting. Normally we do this in early June, but this year we sowed our seeds in flats rather than in an outdoor nursery bed, and the plants are big earlier, especially the faster growing King Richard and Lincoln. So we’re going to transplant those today. They are nice and cold-tolerant (we’ve got a forecast low of 34F in a few days!), and will keep us from putting tomato plants out too early and regretting it later.

Starting to harvest garlic scapes lifts our spirits because it is a tasty attractive new crop for the year, and pleasant work. Here’s what I wrote about them for my book, Sustainable Market Farming (c) Pam Dawling 2013.

Garlic plants in late spring. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Garlic plants in late spring.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Garlic scapes are the firm, round seed stems that grow from hardneck garlic and start to appear three weeks before harvest, as the bulbs size up. If these are removed, the garlic bulbs will be easier to braid, if you want braids from hardneck varieties. Scapes also make an early-season visually attractive crop. Contrary to ideas mentioned by some sources, leaving scapes in does not increase the storage life of the garlic.

Most people who remove scapes cut them where they emerge from the leaves. We prefer to pull ours, to get the most out of them. We don’t wait for the top of the scape to loop around, as the scapes will have begun 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. 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 into buckets, with the scapes standing upright, so we can put a little water in the bucket and the scapes are aligned, easy to cut up. They will store well in a refrigerator for months if needed. Late morning is a good time to pull scapes (or early afternoon). The wound heals over in fifteen to twenty minutes in the heat of the day, whereas otherwise it could drip for up to 24 hours, increasing the risk of disease, and losing water from the plant.

We harvest scapes two or three times a week, for about three weeks in May. The crew always enjoys this task, partly because it’s a stand-up job and partly because we encourage a friendly competition to see who can get the longest scape of the day. This encourages everyone to perfect their technique too. 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. One acre (0.4 hectare) of hardneck  garlic can produce 300–500 lbs (140–225 kg) of scapes.