The many harvests of perennial garlic

The luscious bulbs of garlic (Allium sativum) are all the rage. But planted in fall into as fertile of soil possible only to be dug up in June-July, they’re essentially a vegetatively propagated annual. You might be surprised how much garlic yields to those who refuse to bow down and grub for bulbs and rather harvest the topside of garlic as a perennial.

From year one to twenty of leaving a garlic bulb in the soil, the harvest is about the same. In early spring, tender shoots rise from the soil that can be snapped off, and sautéed, or the like. Snapping them like this leaves the root intact. A sprout grows up from that portion of the root, replacing the harvested sprout in short order. This gives you opportunity for another harvest sooner.

Green garlic goes on until about the end of May for me, when the days lengthen enough to cause the formation of scapes, and a tougher stem to hold them. The scapes, straight away, can be harvested. I treat them like green garlic. You might find The Season of Scapes, and several other posts from Heather over at My Urban Homestead helpful in figuring all the uses for these.

In the care of annual garlic, these really must be removed, or the bulbs will be small. When garlic is perennial, there is no rush whatsoever to get the scapes off, because they eventually yield the best harvest of all: the bulbils.

Garlics, unlike The conglomerate of perennial leeks, don’t bloom,* but rather make little bulbs en mass atop their stem. These burst their papery wrapping, perfect for harvest in early July for me -about the time I have to dig the bulbs of annual garlic. I prefer the bulblets though. They have a milder flavor, and are very tender. No peeling necessary for these but peeling back the outer paper that covers the clump as a whole.

These bulbils are delicious when broken up and sautéed in butter to flavor whatever dish that could use a vibrant flush of garlic.

Once the bulbil high is over, it’s not long before cool weather in fall (about September for me) brings another flush of new shoots. The process from here repeats ad infinitum.

You could, if there are ever more bulbils than you can use, let them fall to the ground to make more garlic plants. Unfortunately, these don’t make sizable garlic bulbs as we’re used to from planting cloves. Helen over at Growing Out of Chaos has posted some interesting notes in The Garlic’s Surprise lately. Even in the first year they attain descent size, and might make a stand-in for the high labor of bulb division. Some sources say that if a bulbil is left in the ground for two years it will form a full garlic bulb. So perhaps spread around a couple extra of the bulbils, and wait two year to see what your situation yields. You might have the big garlic without the work.

What I most appreciate about the perennial garlic harvest is its willingness to grow and yield excellent harvests even when crammed against weeds. There are several garlic specimen near me growing in the roadside ditches surrounded by grass and young trees, but yield excellent little bundles of bulbils for harvest come July. If paired with more sensible neighbors in a forest garden setting, a perennial garlic clump can grow and give copious harvests of shoots and bulbils without any problems.

So perhaps try sticking bulbs of garlic in the ground this fall in one of your perennial polycultures, and forget digging it ever again. The yields are lower in the winter of course, unless you store the bulbils in olive oil or the like. It beats bending over to work the soil, hurriedly getting the scapes off on schedule, and digging in the heat of summer a bulb you’ll in part have to pay forward to next year’s harvest. Just leave them in the ground I say, and try the perennial, above ground harvest.

*This is technically the definition of a leek vs, garlic. The Oepri Perizweib though, which I mentioned in the former leek post, actually makes bulbils, not blooms. Technically it ought to be a garlic. On the other hand, the Sacred Forest garlic from Oikos I mentioned actually blooms, further showing it’s really a leek. If such details don’t bother you though, then by all means don’t mind them. The name may not make much difference on your plate and palate. Just a note in case you want bulbils but get flowers. A name that usually goes with the real garlics that produce bulbils is rocambole garlic.


  1. I can confirm that bulbils will form normal garlic bulbs in their second year of growth. I also got scapes this year, which I will use for the crop in two year’s time. Seed-saving at its best!

    Not tried eating the scapes as I have enough garlic for the year but I do eat garlic leaves (as well as those from onions). A fabulous plant family 😊.


    1. Good to know! I so appreciate you taking the time and chance to experiment with growing out the bulbils. Now I’m wondering exactly how hands off the process can get? Just letting th bulbils fall to the soil surface and dontheir own thing may, in two years, result in quite fine garlic without ever lifting a finger. I’m sure it takes up much less space to gather and replant the bulbils though. At any rate it beats digging bulbs only to replant bulbs. Thanks for letting me share your post!


      1. If you have space, why not just let the bulbils fall and see what happens. I don’t have the space but it’s great that we can experiment in our own ways 😊.


        1. I think I will, because it would be a wonderful situation indeed! I’ll just need to figure the best groindcover that will manage the ground under the garlic, whike allowing the garlic bulbils to easily take root. That will propbably be mache, but I’ll let you know what works best.


            1. Such as? I’m guessing from previous conversations you might have strawberries in mind. I do find those leave a lot of bare ground between the plants that is nevertheless shaded because ofthe stretching leaves. Perehaps garlic interplanted with Alpine strawberry. You certainly are getting my idea machine up and running!


              1. Sorry, mistyped… should have been ‘wouldn’t be able to advise’. I don’t think strawberries would be the right choice – certainly not my variety, as they will suck the life out of the soil (my mint doesn’t like them too close, for example). They will also create too much shade if grown too close.

                Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on The Blonde Butter Maker and commented:
    Reboging a post from Mortal Tree about harvesting the bulbils of garlic rather than the bulbs found below the soil. Recently he showed us this in our own garden. I was very curious and added the little tender bulbils to sauteed day lily buds and chopped welsh onion, which I then served over grilled chicken. We hastily devoured this delicious meal!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Garlic can and does produce true seed as well as bulbils. Hardneck and rocambole and even some softneck will produce seed. Hardneck varieties with purple flowers that produce fewer bulbils have more flowers. Usually what happens is the bulbils crowd out and steal all the nutrients from the flowers but if you pluck the bulbils off soon enough and carefully so you dont destroy the flower buds they will mature and give you little black seeds. Not trying to be rude.


    1. Fascinating. I’ve never come across such specimen. Although from the quite exhaustive article it looks like there is little chance I would. I may contend that such a characteristic of flowering, or even this curious mashup you mentioned, is due to genetics that should be called a leek. Many “leeks” I have grown have distinctly garlic scent and character, and many “garlics” such as the the elephant garlics act like leeks. The distinction of the flowers vs bulbils is obviously just for neatly coraling specimen into concepts. The lines in Allium especially are quite hazey, so perhaps it really isn’t an issue of which is which. I am curious: is there any distinction you would say divides leeks from garlic then? With such a familiarity with the subject I would love to know your take on it. Thanks for taking the time to enlighten me. Much appreciated.


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