…or, Good Grief! Give the Bees a Break!
My 5-year-old grandson gave me a special letter the other day. Inside the envelope was a carefully folded (multiple times) picture he had colored of a rad dude on a motorcycle. (Nice job!) But more revealing was the envelope on which he had scrawled in his very best handwriting “GRAMMA,” along with a little happy face, below which was a large letter B. He explained to me that the face was a bee, because he knew his grandma loved bees. More pointedly, he had earlier told his mother, “All Gramma ever talks about is bees….”
Ever notice how our “hmmmms” are a whole lot like “bzzzzzzs?”
So, with that revelation, we interrupt this broadcast with another thing that this grandma likes to talk about, i.e., Garlic!
Truth be told, I have been so busy dealing with swarm after swarm after swarm, that much of the rest of the garden has been neglected.
Except, of course, the garlic … (many thanks to my dear husband for his help!)
Actually, though, the garlic is an amazingly resilient plant. It can handle a certain amount of neglect. If you aren’t trying to market perfect, gargantuan bulbs, it can handle a lot of neglect and other adverse conditions.
But if you are trying to help it be all that it can beeee (ooops. there I go again), then a certain amount of care, well, shows you care.
Ok. I am getting a LOT of questions lately:
- Yikes! the tips of my garlic are yellow. What should I do?
- Should I still fertilize? If so, what? Are foliar sprays ok?
- When should I cut the scapes?
- Should I stop watering? If not now, when?
- How do I know when to harvest?
The thing is, I have been growing garlic for – what – over 35 years, and my answer is still, “Well, it depends….” – and whatsmore, even after all this time, I don’t consider myself an expert. Every year is a little different. Weather, soil, water, daylight, variety…there are an infinite number of variables, stressors, and conditions that can factor in how the garlc grows. It’s a combination of science, art, experience, and good juju.
The following are a few pointers:
Yellow Tips, Stripes, Striations, General Yellowing:
Yellow tips are so common, they’re considered normal at this time of year. Early in the season, they might indicate spring frost damage, or possibly nutrient imbalances, or even disease. The great majority of the time, yellow tips do not affect yield, so the main thing is to not panic over a few yellow tips & just allow the garlic to come into its own.
By early June, the garlic is starting to put out scapes; lower leaves may begin to die off. Think of it this way: the leaves aren’t “yellowing” – they are just losing their chlorophyll. The chlorophyll-producing capacity is being focused in the upper part of the plant (leaves & scapes) where it is needed most as the plant matures. The energy that is produced in that process is being transferred to the bulb. So yes, as time goes on, you WILL see “yellowing,” which is your main indicator of when the bulb is ready to harvest.
However, if you see striations, splotches, “mosaics,” or stripes rather than general yellowing, it might indicate a virus or other problem. These are not necessarily life-threatening. That said, you should pay attention to anything with odd patterns and see how they develop. Take note of that variety; you might not want to use it for future seedstock. It is OK to gently remove the dirt around the bulb to get a closer look at how things are developing below ground. When in doubt, it is always better to pull the plant than risk the spread of disease. (An early harvest here & there, particularly if you are craving new garlic, is also good!)
The ideal scenarios for disease in our region seems to be wet soil followed by heat or wet soil followed by continued cold. Gee. I think that’s the way it works for most regions when you move from spring into summer! Penicillium molds, botrytis, fusarium mold (bottom end rot), neck rot, rust…combine with a rich soil…aggghh! You can read about some of these horrors in this blogpost about reading the leaves; however, keep in mind how easy it is to think we have every disease imaginable when we read about them on the Internet!
And consider this: a virus here & there, a few weeds, variations in watering, and a little neglect each on their own might not affect overall yields, but the combination of several can be disastrous! Furthermore, if the plant health is compromised for whatever reason, the plant is a target for pesky critters: thrips, nematodes, wireworms, maggots — the little *astards just love to take advantage of the weak!
Scapes? Aren’t We Supposed to Cut the Scapes?
My bulbs are just starting to produce a few scapes. It is fun to watch how quickly that first arc can twist and turn into a graceful if not a bit gangly stem tipped with a pod bursting with bulbils, which are great for eating or planting. Most people will tell you to cut them so the plant puts the energy into the bulb, not the flower (not a true flower, but you get the idea).
Those scapes are indeed quite tasty, and I always cut a few for that reason. As a general practice, however, I do not cut ALL the scapes. When I have followed this advice, I have harvested much earlier (great if you want to tap an early market – but I would say just grow an earlier variety if that’s the motive). In my unscientific trials of plants with and without scapes, one might conclude that the bulbs with the scapes left on are smaller, particularly if the bulbs (or a particular variety) are harvested all at once, which is what most people do. It is my observation, however, that those with scapes left on take longer to mature (and conversely, those without mature more quickly); if they are all harvested at the same time, then the ones with scapes are being harvested prematurely.
Meaning this: in my (humble) opinion, cutting the scape puts the plant into shock & emergency development mode. Bulbs grow quickly (where else will the energy go?), but flavor and storage capabilities are sacrificed. When the scapes are left on, the plant matures more slowly, but with a little patience, you will still get large bulbs (is this a size competition?). Bulbs that are allowed to mature at their own pace have more time to develop flavor and are (weather permitting) easier to cure. (Course, last year, we had one rainstorm after another, right when it was time to harvest. The ground was saturated. The question was, do I leave them in the ground, risk them overmaturing, & wait for things to dry out? Or do I harvest them with wet skins & try to cure them in damp weather? Either way brought mold.) That caveat leads us to…
Another thing to consider: our weird weather factor
Sequim is famous for our “rainshadow” effect, where, because we are on the protected side of the Olympics, we average less than 17″ of rain per year, most of which falls between November and March. We are not protected, however, from the onslaught of wind that shoots down the channel between the Olympic Peninsula and Canada; nor from the marine layer that rolls in off the saltwater and settles for extended periods. The lack of actual rainfall can be deceiving; cool temps and heavy damp fog can be ideal for molds; strong winds can suck the moisture right out of the soil and stress the plants by sheer force. Every year is different and the weather changes several times a day. This year, we had a heat surge in May. Crazy people were peeling off their clothes, well, like crazy! It was general mayhem everywhere, and moreover, everyone was smiling! Most years, however, it doesn’t warm up until after the 4th of July. We start wondering whether we will even get a summer. Last year, as noted above, we had this series of heavy rains that drove us all into the dark caves of the doldrums.
So what does this have to do with scapes and garlic?
Some years when I have cut the scapes, I have harvested as early as July 4, right when we want to do family things and when the weather can still be unsettled, which means more risk during curing (again, just be sure you have adequate air flow). When I have left the scapes on (and I am sure other factors also play into this equation), harvest can be a full month later, at which time, the weather is likely to be drier. Quick curing is more easily accomplished.
What About Fertilizer at this Point?
Once you see those scapes, do NOT add nitrogen fertilizers! In fact, I would cut the Nitro in May. The plant is switching from a leaf producer to a bulb producer; nitrogen only encourages more leaves. Instead, a diluted fish fertilizer, liquid seaweed, compost tea (not manure!), diluted worm tea, or comfrey tea (again, not heavy on the N), applied on the ground or as a foliar spray, are all good. Some years, I have not added fertilizer at all. I work hard to build good soil. I add compost and turn in cover crops prior to planting. It is easy to go overboard on too much of a good thing. If you are confident in your soil, don’t sweat it if you don’t get around to later amendments.
Should You Stop Watering Now?
I say no (as of June 10). I keep on watering up until a couple of weeks before harvest, and how to tell when that is exactly is a bit trickier. But how *much* to water is a better question, the answer to which largely depends on the Weird Weather notes above. You will read that the bulbs need constant moisture, but I feel in our maritime climate, we get too many molds to risk that approach – and although the weather is gorgeous right now, it’s likely to storm tomorrow, and as noted, it quite often doesn’t warm up until after July 4. It’s a fine balance between rain, marine layer, wind, and summer drought. I find my garlic has more flavor (and hotter! if you like heat, pay attention!), although perhaps smaller bulbs, when I don’t water as often. Think radish. They grow big & watery with a lot of water; smaller, hotter with less. So it’s ok to wait between waterings a bit, but I wouldn’t cut it off completely just yet. True, the roots have a wider network than you realize & will seek out the nutrients & water they need, but if you pay attention, the plant will tell you when it’s feeling a little on the dry side. I envy those who grow their garlic in nice, neat beds with borders; however, bulbs in constrained compartments might need a little more careful monitoring. I would also say that by my experience, years when I have watered more heavily (or when mother nature has done so for me), my bulbs have indeed been larger, but they also have not stored as well. Large bulbs with more water content can be more difficult to cure, sometimes taking an additional couple of weeks, depending on weather variables, air circulation, location, etc. Also, garlic varieties with thick necks and stems tend to take longer to dry. Why does it matter? Well, if they don’t thoroughly cure, you risk mold, rot, disease, and having to destroy everything you’ve been trying to grow for the last 9 months. Other than that…
Ideally, if you cut the water about 2 weeks before harvest, assuming dry weather, they will start to cure in the ground and you will have a much cleaner harvest, meaning, the dirt will lightly brush off the outside skin and you won’t see slimy black wrappers, which you would have to peel away to prevent mold. If it rains 40 days and 40 nights, like it seemed to do to us last year, and the watering is out of your control, you still might be able to salvage the bulbs, provided you have enough leaves left on the plant (think of each leaf as a wrapper) and hang them in a place with good air circulation. Keep in mind the outside wrapper usually dries up and flakes off during the curing and cleaning; you might even need to remove a couple of layers of wrappers, but you still want to leave a couple to protect the bulb.
As an aside, just after I wrote most of this to answer a question about watering, our irrigation pump broke. I was going to load up the backpack sprayer with a diluted fish fertilizer, but the wind was blowing like crazy, and I knew it would be pointless to try to spray anything other than myself. My dog loves me when I smell like fish, but it’s usually something I avoid doing on purpose. Some friends stopped by to look at the garlic and talk about what we should be doing at this point, and I have to confess, I was a bit embarrassed. The garlic looked a little on the wilted side. Not terribly wilted, but slightly wimpy.
Our pump is fixed now, the garlic is watered, and everyone has perked up considerably. The point? Garlic is a tough plant. It can withstand the ups and downs of weather conditions. Not that you want to stress it on purpose. Who needs THAT? And my dog loves me no matter what I smell like. That’s important, too.
So – How Do You Know When to Harvest? And How Do You Know When it is 2 Weeks BEFORE Harvest?
Tricky questions. This is where the art and science interplay. When 4-6 green leaves remain on the plant is the general rule of thumb (some advise more, but it depends on the variety). Better to harvest a little early than to find that they lose more protective wrappers than you thought they would during the curing process. As noted above, confounding factors include the variety, weather, hours of daylight, & whether or not you cut your scapes. Also, there will be variations within the same variety. Large farming operations harvest all at once; obviously, that’s more efficient. We, on the other hand, can look to see which plants can benefit from a little more time – or not. Kind of like apples. They don’t ripen all at once; that’s just the way they are frequently picked. Keep in mind, garlic can double in size that last month. Also – re: varieties. If you have Asian or Turban types, do not wait for the leaves to turn yellow. They will get overmature in a flash. Some can be ready right now, if not yesterday. General harvest schedule: 1) Turbans, 2) Asiatics, 3) Artichokes, 4) Rocamboles, 5) Glazed Purple Stripes, 6) Purple Stripes, 7) Marbled Purple Stripes, 8) Porcelains, 9) Silverskins. If you keep this general pattern in mind when you plant, harvesting can be a simple matter of moving from left to right. More or less. I always end up zig-zagging or wandering in circles. But that’s me.
The main advice I can give is always plant more than you think you need! After all, you will need to save out your best for next year’s crop (figure a minimum of 10% and often more like 25%, depending on the variety and how many cloves it averages per bulb). Give yourself a cushion for problems; after all, it takes 9 months to grow these little babies, and you can easily screw it up any step along the way! How’s that for a vote of confidence! Seriously, Mother Nature is often the culprit, and all you can do is choose the best for seed stock, plant lots, plant different varieties, plant them in different places, don’t forget to rotate your crops, dig out anything that looks diseased, and do a positive juju dance whenever the inspiration strikes! (I don’t know whether that last little tidbit will save your garlic or not, but what the heck, we all need more juju and dancing in our lives!) You could also hug your local farmer who tries to make a living off doing this!