WICHE: Garlic harvest comes early, onions to follow

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Here are some tips to execute those harvests properly.

By Jeneen Wiche

I read somewhere that summer solstice marks the point that it is safe to harvest your garlic. By June 20 the garlic has “cloved-up” in this part of the country, but of course what happens before that date may give us a little wiggle room. This year I harvested on June 19, the earliest in memory, and the garlic looks good.

My fall-planted garlic is usually ready to harvest in August (once the tops begin to brown out). Garlic is day-length sensitive, thus the rule about cloves forming around summer solstice. If you harvest too early, you will have just one bulb, and if you harvest too late, you may experience some rot or pest pressure.

Bottom line: If your garlic tops have died out, get ready to dig.

I usually use a garden fork to loosen the soil and pull the bulb free by grasping the stalk. I leave them fully intact and put them in the garage to let them air cure for about two weeks.

Put them wherever you want but be sure it is a warm, dry and well-ventilated space. After your 2-week mark, you can trim, clean and sort your bulbs.

Once the bulbs feel dry, braid them all together (which I have never been able to figure out how to do) or cut the stems, leaving a couple of inches above the bulb. The neck should feel tight and dry, which will prevent decay. Rub off any remaining soil with your hands and inspect each bulb.

Sort any damaged ones to use right away; sort the biggest and most beautiful for replanting in the fall (this is how you create super garlic that loves where you grow and live). The average and pristine get cleaned up for storage and later culinary delight.

For long-term storage, pick somewhere cool and dark. I recycle little mesh bags and hang them from a nail in the pantry. Avoid storing garlic in the refrigerator, because it can change the flavor (it is reasonable to experiment with various storage practices, too).

The signal that your onions are ready for harvest is when the tops of the plants flop over and die back. When about half of the tops have turned brown and flopped over, the onions are at their peak for harvesting. Be sure not to harvest too early, because the bulb size will be small, they will cure slowly and be more likely to decay before you use them. Putting off harvest too long also increases the chances of decay.

Once the tops have flopped, dig the onions.

During the curing process, you want to cut the tops back to about two inches and lay them out on a screen in that same dry, well-ventilated, shaded place your garlic enjoyed for about two weeks. As they cure, the necks shrink up and phenolic compounds accumulate there, which helps to stop rot.

Those onions with thicker necks have a harder time protecting themselves from rot so go ahead and sort those out and use them first.

After the 2-week curing period, trim the tops again, leaving about an inch to protect the neck from bacteria and fungi. Onions are most successfully stored at 32 degrees with a low humidity level. Rot and sprouting during the bulb’s dormant period are more prevalent when they are stored at temperatures above 40.

Interestingly, too, the more pungent the onion, the better it stores, because of higher levels of the phenolic compound, which helps to keep disease down in the bulb.

Other ways to increase your onion harvest and successful storage is to start with the right variety at planting time. Look for intermediate-day length onions (these onions set bulbs when day-length averages 12 to 14 hours) that are considered good storage varieties, including Super Star, Candy, Ebenezer and Storage King.