You may have heard about garlic scapes, or seen them in the farmers’ market. Garlic scapes are the stalks of hardneck garlic, and gardeners typically remove them between the summer solstice and the end of June. Removing the developing scape helps the plant divert energy from creating something that is similar to flower into making a larger head of garlic. The scape is edible with a mild garlic flavor, and many find it to be a delicious, once-a-year treat. Use it to make pesto, grill, or toss into a stir-fry.
You may also choose to leave the scape alone, and let it mature. The garlic head on the plant (which is forming in the soil) will be slightly smaller than usual. As the scape develops, it will look like a small clove of garlic on top of the stalk. It will go on to produce bulbils which look like small cloves of garlic and are a rare, edible treat. You can use the bulbils as you would garlic in cooking, but you don’t have to worry about peeling off the papery skin. You can also plant the bulbils in the soil, and get full heads of garlic in about two years.
To remove scapes from hardneck garlic, use scissors or clippers to cut off the round stalk, just where the leaves begin. In Chicagoland, garlic bulbs are typically harvested around the end of July-early August. This is a good time to do mid-season fertilizing for your garlic, as it prepares to divide into cloves in the next month or two.
Wondering what the spring garlic is at farmers’ markets? This is the garlic plant harvested after the garlic has swelled (like a young onion or thick scallion) but before it has divided into cloves. Why harvest garlic before it has divided into cloves? For some, the flavor – somewhere between a leek and garlic – is the goal.