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.