At my brother Henry’s farm in central Illinois, the garlic harvest is one of the annual events that requires all hands on deck. The massive undertaking took on even more urgency this year as drought hastened the drying process, leading to yellow leaf tips by mid-June, indicating it was time to dig the garlic.
In the 20 years that Henry has been farming, this is the first year the garlic harvest has happened in June. This is also the first year when we had more than 25 helpers in the field, a veritable “crop mob,” thanks to some Evanston, Ill., farmers market volunteers and about 20 Illinois State University students.
Our Grandma Henrietta always said, “Many hands make light work,” and there was plenty of evidence of the truth of that aphorism. As the sun was setting after the first day of the garlic harvest, Henry calculated that 7,300 soft neck garlic plants (mainly the New York White variety) had been pulled, plus a few hundred small ones, plus about 1,200 large ones to be saved back as seed and planted in October. In addition, more than 1,000 of the hard-neck German Extra Hardy were pulled, adding up to about 10,000 plants out of the ground, which was roughly two-thirds of the total harvested this year.
The sheer number of plants to be pulled required everyone to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a two-hour siesta during the hottest part of the day. Henry was driven by twin engines of urgency. First, he needed to get the garlic out of the ground before it dried down too much and the tight bulbs began to open. An exploding bulb is less marketable and harder to rub clean of its flaky, outer skins. Plus, dirt gets in the center of an opening bulb, providing a perfect habitat for microbes that cause dry rot. Second, Henry was painfully aware that each hour devoted to the garlic harvest was an hour when people weren’t available to attack the weeds that were growing unmolested by hands or hoes.
Thanks to all the helping hands, instead of spending the entire week harvesting garlic, as we often do, we needed only two days and were then able to go back to the planting, trellising, mulching and myriad other pressing tasks.
In addition to the many helping hands, the work went swiftly because of the improved implement Henry had the local machine shop fabricate for him last year. Instead of the old implement consisting of four arrow-shaped sweeps, which was used along with pitch forks and strong backs, Henry now has a single broad blade that the tractor pulls beneath all the heads of garlic in the three rows that make up a bed. The blade cuts through the tight mop of roots, allowing the harvesters to easily pull up the dislodged garlic plants, shake off the dirt and stack them in neat pyramids, which are then brought to the hay rack.
When the rack is piled high, Henry hitches it to the pickup and drives it up to the barn where he and the interns, volunteers and family members work sorting and bunching it until, or even after, dark.
Each year we set aside the largest bulbs, about 10% of the total. The individual cloves from these bulbs will be planted in late October or early November. Until then, they hang in a separate section of the barn so that we will not inadvertently cut them down to sell. This selecting of the biggest and the best for the next year’s crop has been done since the dawn of agriculture, long before Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk, scientist and gardener, figured out the laws of inheritance. Mendel elucidated the mechanism behind what early farmers knew intuitively: saving the seed from the best plants capitalizes on random genetic variation. In this way, our garlic gets bigger and healthier and better tasting year by year as we select those plants best suited to our soil and our climate.
During this year’s drought, we had worried about the garlic and whether the bulbs would fill out. But garlic is an impressive scavenger of water — a single bulb can have roots that reach 30 inches down with a lateral spread of 18 inches in every direction — and so our garlic managed to get the water it needed, and the bulbs we have just harvested are quite magnificent.
Top photo: Harvested garlic. Credit: Terra Brockman