One of the first things people notice about garlic is that it marches to its own tune. During autumn when the rest of the garden is being put to bed, garlic is ready for planting. And while other crops are just beginning to stretch their spring legs, garlic plants shoot into the air with surprising vigor—and then a twist!
Summer garlic looks a little crazy. A single stalk on each plant, about the diameter of a pencil with an arrow-shaped false flower on the end, curls around until it forms nearly a complete circle, looking as if nature were a calligrapher practicing her letter “Ps.”
These curls are called scapes. They develop on the garlic type known as “stiffneck” or “hardneck,” which is frequently grown in northern climates—as opposed to the “softneck” varieties usually sold in grocery stores and more suitable for southern climates—about a month into the growing season. The emergence of garlic scapes presents the gardener with a dilemma which must be addressed: What should be done about them?
Many experienced gardeners say the scapes should be snipped. Conventional wisdom instructs that removing the scapes redirects the plant’s energy to the bulbs, thereby resulting in larger bulbs and a greater yield. Some growers even maintain that removing the scapes affects the longevity of the bulb, allowing it to be stored longer than those which grew with scapes intact.
To remove the scape, just snap it off with your fingers just below the first bend. Scissors can be used, as well. Scapes can be snipped as soon as the stalk begins to curl, or as late as after it has formed a full circle, but the general rule of thumb is that earlier is better.
One of the reasons that it is a good idea to do scape-snipping earlier is for reasons of palatability. Like most vegetables, they start out tender and grow more tough and woody as time passes.
Another question which must be answered about garlic scapes is that of what to do with them once they are snipped. They can easily be composted or fed to livestock—although it may be wise to avoid giving them to milk-producing animals and running the risk of ending up with garlic-flavored milk—but scapes are becoming increasingly popular as human food.
Garlic scapes can be used in just about any recipe suitable for regular garlic. Soups, stews, stir-fries, salads, skillet dinners and casseroles are all great candidates. They can be thinly sliced or chopped and added to pasta or mashed potato or eggs. The flavor of scapes is generally a little milder than bulbs, especially if they are young and tender, and can even be left whole and eaten as a vegetable. Pan-fried in olive oil, braised or roasted, stand-alone or mixed into other ingredients—the sky is the limit for garlic scapes! If you get them early, you can use them more like chives or scallions, and later on they can be minced.
One very popular method of using garlic scapes is using them to make pesto. Most recipes I have found look similar to pestos made of basil or other herbs. To try making garlic scape pesto, try starting with your favorite recipe and tweak it with scapes, or do an Internet search for more tried-and-true recipes.
They can also be frozen for use later. Although the fresh texture will not hold enough to be enjoyed raw when thawed, scapes that are sliced or minced before freezing will still be a great addition to cooked foods and an easy shortcut when limited time does not allow peeling and mincing a bulb.
But what if you do not clip them at all? Around my place, summer zooms by fast. Even though there is a fairly wide window of time when the scapes can be snipped off in time to possibly affect the bulb, sometimes it can slide past and slam shut before I know it.
The good news is that for home gardening purposes, it probably will not make a lot of difference. There could even be a few advantages to purposely leaving them on. In addition to saving time and energy, leaving garlic scapes on is aesthetically pleasing. Many people appreciate the art and beauty of gardening as well as the practicality, and enjoying the gracefulness of garlic scapes can be worth the sacrifice of a few ounces of garlic bulbs.
Garlic scapes provide a natural chronometer, as well. When the curls straighten, it is time to harvest the bulbs.
Fortunately, there is no wrong answer for backyard garlic growers. The balancing of larger yields and busy season tasks and summer beauty means there is always a win. It is probably important for market gardeners to use no-nonsense methods to maximize income, such as selling cut garlic scapes in spring and harvesting larger bulbs in summer. But the rest of us have the luxury of being a little more laid-back with our garlic scape decisions. And after all, that is part of the beauty of raising our own food.
Do you cut scapes, or leave them? Share your advice in the section below: