Thanks to its delicious taste and reputation as a healthy food, garlic (Allium sativum) is popular with gardeners. But growing this relative of the onion takes a fair amount of space and patience. It is an unusual plant in the vegetable garden because you have to wait about 8 months after planting before you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. But if you've grown it well and harvested and stored it properly, you can have fresh garlic all winter. In fact, this is one of the best vegetables for long-term storage.
When to Harvest Garlic
In general, garlic is ready for harvesting when the lower leaves start to brown. The only way to be sure is to dig up a few bulbs to check their progress. If the cloves fill out the skins, it’s time to harvest.
Harvesting too soon will result in smaller cloves that don’t store well. However, leaving the bulbs in the ground too long causes the cloves to burst out of their skins, making them vulnerable to disease and shorter storage time. So timing is quite important when it comes to harvesting and storing garlic.
Equipment / Tools
- Garden fork
- Knife or kitchen scissors
- Mesh bag (optional)
- Mature garlic plant
Prepare the Garlic for Harvest
With most root vegetables, including garlic, it can be difficult to know when harvest time has arrived because you can't see their ripeness. Most gardeners plant garlic in the fall and wait for the plants to sprout the following spring. When the leaves begin to turn yellow and dry, usually in June or July, harvest time is near.
Once the leaves on your garlic begin to decline, stop watering the plant. This is impossible if it rains on the plant, but do the best you can. A dry spell will help to cure the garlic in the ground.
Determine When the Time Is Right
Picking the right time to harvest garlic is something of an art form. But the experts from Seed Savers Exchange say the plant is ready after three or four leaves have died back but five or six green leaves remain. Avoid waiting too long because the cloves will begin to separate from the bulbs in the ground.
Dig Up the Bulbs
If possible, wait for the soil to dry. Garlic bulbs don't easily pull out of the ground like onions do. While you may have planted a small clove, the mature bulb is now several inches deep with a strong root system. So always dig up your garlic. Never try to pull it out of the ground, as the stalks can break and separate from the bulbs.
A garden fork typically works better than a shovel for digging up garlic, though either tool will do. Loosen the soil, and gently dig up the garlic bulbs, taking care not to slice through them. (A sliced bulb can be used immediately, but it can't be stored.) Then, shake off the remaining dirt by hand to separate the bulbs from the soil.
Cure the Garlic
Garlic should be cured or dried before storing it for later use. Start by brushing off any soil remnants clinging to the bulbs. Do not wash them off or get the bulbs wet. Leave the stalks and roots on the bulbs while they cure. Either bundle 8 to 10 garlic stems together, tie with twine, and hang bulb-side down in a cool, dark space, like a basement, or lay the garlic flat on a raised screen in a single layer. Allow the bulbs to cure for three to four weeks. Keep out of sunlight, as it can change the flavor of fresh garlic.
Once the tops and roots have dried, cut them off and clean the garlic by removing the outer papery skin. Be careful not to expose any of the cloves. Or you can leave the stalks and braid the garlic, if you've grown softneck varieties.
Store the Bulbs
Keep your garlic in a dark, cool place (32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit) where it will still get some air circulation. Braiding and hanging garlic is a good way to store it. However, don’t hang it in the kitchen where it will be exposed to light. You can also store garlic in a mesh bag.
Tips for Harvesting and Storing Garlic
Not all garlic varieties mature at the same time. Artichoke garlic generally matures first, followed by rocambole garlic. Then come other varieties, including purple stripes, porcelains, and silverskins.
Softneck varieties of garlic can be stored for six to eight months. Check periodically to make sure the garlic is not going soft or sprouting. Hardneck varieties might dry out, sprout, or go soft within three to four months. However, storing hardneck varieties right at freezing temperature sometimes helps them survive for up to seven months without deteriorating.
If you're a seed saver, there is nothing easier than saving garlic seed cloves. Simply put aside a few of your largest, healthiest bulbs to plant next season. Don't bother saving smaller bulbs, as planting them will result in small bulbs for your next harvest. Store bulbs for planting at room temperature with fairly high humidity, so they don't dry out.