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How to Grow & Harvest Great Garlic & How to Make Garlic Powder

Q. Mike: Thanks to your tips, we harvested a bumper crop of garlic; a nice big bulb for every clove we planted! But there are only two of us who use garlic; how do we keep our harvest fresh over the next few months?

    ---Betty in Glenside PA
A. Congratulations, Bets! First let's do a quick review of the garlic harvest process. You start keeping a close eye on your plants as the end of the school year approaches. When the bottom third of a plant turns brown, that bulb should be ready to harvest—meaning you'll pull up a nice tight wrapper around big fat cloves.

I only harvest as much at one time as I can fit single file on a big table on our porch with a ceiling fan right over the table. "Curing" the garlic out of the sun and in a constant breeze really improves the flavor and 'keeping' quality; I'd rather leave some plants in the ground a little longer than rush this step. After five to ten days, I move the cured bulbs inside and harvest more to refill the table. I (gently!) rub any remaining dirt off the cured bulbs, trim the roots and tops back and examine each head carefully.

Bulbs with any damage, like a visibly bad clove or burst wrapper, get pulled apart and the cloves processed into garlic powder (or otherwise used in the kitchen) right away. Big, fat perfect heads that contain only big fat perfect cloves get hung in a cool airy place in old onion bags. My experience is that these heads will keep well—that is, not begin to sprout—until Thanksgiving or so. But before that, I'll gently break them all open, searching for the biggest cloves for replanting, which I'll do throughout the month of September. The remainder will be made into more garlic powder, which for my money (or lack thereof) is the best way to store the bulk of the harvest over winter.

Q. Mike: I've heard you mention making garlic powder. Could you provide the details?

    ---Kim in Beavercreek, Ohio
A. My pleasure, Kim! I take a big batch of cloves, remove the papery skins, slice up the cloves and arrange the slices single file on food drying trays. Then I place the dryer somewhere I won't mind the smell (like back out on the porch or in an unused room), plug it in and dry the slices for a couple of days—until a sample piece breaks instead of bends.

Then I run the dried pieces through a 'coffee grinder' that I only use for this purpose (a little twenty dollar coffee bean grinding machine does the job better than an expensive food processor!) and pour the powder into old spice jars with shaker caps that I've saved, each containing a little desiccating pouch saved from a bottle of vitamins. That's right—I don't throw ANYTHING away! (So please don't look at our basement. Or open any closets. Or...)

I label the jars and store them, tightly lidded, in a cool, dry place. The flavor is much better and more pungent than any garlic powder you can buy in a store, and a well-stored jar will retain that amazing flavor for a year or more. If you grow lots of garlic, make lots of powder—it makes a much-appreciated holiday gift! If you DON'T grow lots of garlic, start to!

Q. We followed your advice and planted garlic last fall. You're right; the flavor is much better than supermarket garlic! Now—we've heard you mention that every year the garlic will improve as it adjusts our soil conditions. We want to plant more this fall. Do we need to save any of this year's harvest to do so?

    ---LeeAnn in Burlington, NJ
A. Yes. You must save and replant the biggest and best cloves from this year's harvest if you want to begin creating a variety that's adapted to your specific conditions. Do the same every year to continue this 'ethic of constant improvement'. I'm on the 20th generation of growing my biggest and best saved cloves, and the garlic has clearly become very adapted to my conditions (and huge!).

This is one of the most important benefits of 'seed saving' in general. By saving fresh seed (or cloves, in this case) and growing the plants in the same garden year after year, you create your own locally adapted variety.

Q. We've grown garlic for years using cloves saved from the previous year's harvest, but we have never tried growing it from 'seed'—the little kernels that develop inside the garlic 'scapes' that form on top of some varieties. We know you're supposed to cut those scapes off to try and increase the size of the bulb underground, but we missed a few this year and want to try planting the seeds. Any ideas, suggestions or other bits of wisdom would be greatly appreciated.

    ---Tom and Liane in Rhoadesville, VA
A. Great question, guys! When I tried it, each of those little corn kernel-like things produced a single, small, teardrop-shaped clove inside a paper wrapper that tasted exactly like the parent garlic. So I saved and replanted some of these roly-poly-clovies, and got the same things, only bigger, in each subsequent year.

However, I was just discussing this topic with some West Coast growers at the Seed Savers Exchange conference in Iowa this July, and they told me that their saved 'seeds' instead produced tiny heads with multiple mini-cloves inside, which I find much less interesting (and much less useful).

But they tend to grow softneck varieties in CA and other warmer-winter regions, while I grow hardneck varieties in my Pennsylvania garden. Softneck garlic typically stores much longer without sprouting—it's the type you'll find in most supermarkets—while my hardnecks (which I often call 'Northern garlics') are the preferred type for growing in cold winter climes. (And I think they have a deeper range of flavors.)

So the results of this experiment may be variety and/or winter weather dependant. Give it a try and let me know what YOU get!

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