Garlic scapes start to form a month or so after the first leaves. They start off growing somewhat straight and then start curving in circles. Most gardeners cut the scapes off their garlic plants, since leaving them on only diverts the plant's strength and energy away from forming a plump bulb. If you leave them on, they will eventually form small bulbils that can be planted to grow more garlic, but it takes 2 to 3 years for them to form large bulbs.
Many gardeners simply toss their scapes in the compost, but garlic scapes are both edible and delicious, as are the bulbils. Along the same lines, young garlic plants that are pulled to thin a row are referred to as "green garlic." Used in the same manner as green onions, these too make excellent eating.
Do All Garlic Varieties Form Scapes?
All garlic varieties produce a stem, but it's the hardneck Rocambole garlics that send out the curling scapes that gave them the nickname ‛serpent garlic.' There are many types of Rocambole, and the flavor of the scapes can vary considerably from variety to variety, just as with garlic bulbs. But if you have a favorite variety of garlic that grows well in your garden, you will probably enjoy its scapes.
Some of the more popularly grown varieties of Rocambole garlic include: ‘Carpathian,’ ‘German Red’ and ‘Spanish Roja.'
When to Harvest Garlic Scapes
When the scapes are just starting to poke up above the leaves, they are tender enough to eat fresh. Garlic scapes get tougher the longer that they grow. Although they twist and turn and look wonderfully exotic as they grow, they become hotter and more fibrous, requiring peeling and some gentle cooking before eating.
Snapping the scape off with your fingers, as you would with asparagus, will ensure that you get the most tender portion, but cutting them is a bit gentler on the bulb and that is what we're growing the garlic plants for, after all. The plant will probably ooze a bit, but that will stop when the sun warms it and seals the cut.
Keep in mind that you do not have to cut the scapes at all. Your garlic will still form a bulb, it just won't be as large as it might have been. Some gardeners argue that leaving the scapes on results in a longer storing garlic bulb. As the garlic matures, the scape will straighten out. Tall, straight scapes are a sign that the garlic is ready to be harvested.
How to Use Garlic Scapes
If you harvest your scapes young and tender, you can chop them into salads or use them as a topping, as you would use scallions. More mature scapes can be sauteed lightly and used over pasta, with eggs, mixed with cooking greens, pickled, or pretty much in any dish that would be complemented by garlic. Try making a garlic scape pesto.
One Final Tip
Even if you don't grow your own garlic, you may still be able to find scapes at a farm stand or market. But the season for garlic scapes is very short, so keep your eyes peeled in late spring, or you might miss them. If you scoop up more than you can use, freeze them for later.