Dirty Business: Harvesting Garlic and Onions

What? It's August already?!

I couldn't fit everything into this picture.

The end of July/Beginning of August is harvest time for garlic and onions.  I thought that the garlic would be ready before the onions this year, but they didn’t dry out quite as fast as I thought they would.  As always, nature goes at its own pace and knows better than me.  Harvesting garlic and onions is easy, but the technique is different for each type of plant.  For garlic, we know it’s ready to harvest when the scapes and the stalk have mostly-but not completely—dried out.  If we wait too long after this point, then the garlic bulbs will break open and we won’t be able to store them.

It’s hard to tell in this picture, but you can see there are a few of the stalks which still have enough green to show up in the shot.  The actual harvesting isn’t as simple as just grabbing and pulling.  This is for two reasons:  the first is because garlic heads mature all the way underground, so they’re not that easy to get out of the ground.  The second is because the mostly dried stalks might snap off when pulling on them, leaving your garlic head underground.  So, the solution is to just use a trowel to dig under the head and pop it up.

The red circle in the picture is where the stem meets the ground, so you can get a sense of how far/close the trowel should be.  I don’t want to be so close that I wind up damaging the head, but so far that I can’t actually dig the head up.  It took a few minutes to dig up about 30 heads of garlic.

This garlic crop is the first time we used seed garlic from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  Previously, we had used organic garlic heads from the grocery store.  The store garlic was…fine.  It certainly grew and we were able to harvest more than enough to get us though the winter and still have four heads left over at the time of this new harvest.  That being said, the heads were small and many of the cloves were really small.  What a difference using seed garlic makes.  In the picture below, is the braid from last year’s store-bought garlic harvest with three heads still on it—next to one of the seed garlic heads.  The difference is not subtle.

Next it was time to go after the onions.  These are much easier to harvest because they are shallow growers and we don’t let the stalks dry out as much as we do for garlic, so I can just yank them at will.  Basically, once the tips of the greens start to dry up, and there is no more new growth of greens from the center, it’s time to pull them. 

You’ll notice some very runty looking onions next to this fine specimen.  This is a consequence of ordering the double dose of onion plants this year that Mrs. Butcher wanted to try.  The problem was that, once the onions got to the edible stage, I wasn’t able to thin them out fast enough through our cooking needs to provide enough space before they started to crowd each other and essentially stopped growing.  So, we are most definitely going back to a single order next year because the yield this year was actually a little worse compared to last year.  While there were more onions by sheer numbers, there were far fewer onions that had grown to a decent size—most were very small.

Once everything has been harvested, they need to be stored in a shaded area with good air circulation.  We don’t have anything like that, so our neighbors are kind enough to allow us to cure the garlic and onions on their covered porch.  We lay everything out on a large table and will turn the plants every couple of days to allow them to dry evenly and harden up.  The curing process will take two weeks, after which Mrs. Butcher will braid them for hanging in the basement.

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When you can walk its length, and leave no trace, you will have learned.

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