Thanks to its delicious taste and reputation as a healthful food, garlic (Allium sativum) is increasingly popular with gardeners. But growing this delicious relative of the onion takes a fair amount of space in the garden and no small amount of patience. It is an unusual plant in the vegetable garden because you have to wait almost a year 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. This is one of the best vegetables for long-term storage.
When to Harvest Garlic
When to dig up your garlic is a judgment call, but in general, it’s ready to dig when the lower leaves start to brown. The only way to be sure is to actually dig a few bulbs and slice them in half. 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 unstorable and vulnerable to disease. So timing is quite important when it comes to harvesting and storing garlic.
Not all garlic varieties mature at the same time. Artichoke garlic matures first, then Rocamboles, followed by Purple Stripes, Porcelains, and, finally, Silverskins.
- Working Time: 4 hours (to dig, clean, and prepare bulbs from a 10-foot row)
- Total Time: 1 month including curing time
- Material Cost: None
What You'll Need
- Garden fork
- Knife or kitchen scissors
- Mesh bag (optional)
Preparing the Garlic for Harvest
Once the tops of your garlic plants start to die back, harvest time is approaching. With most root vegetables, it can be hard to know when harvest time has arrived since you don't see obviously ripe fruit. But at least potatoes let you peek around the edges and sneak a few baby potatoes early, and onions and radishes have the decency to poke their shoulders above ground to tell you its time to dig them. But growing garlic is an act of faith. Most gardeners plant garlic in the fall, then wait for the plants to spout the following spring. When the leaves begin drying, usually in June or July, harvest time is growing near.
When the leaves on your garlic begin to decline, stop watering. Of course, this is impossible if it rains, but do the best you can. This dry spell will help to cure the garlic in the ground.
Decide to Harvest
Picking the right time to harvest garlic is something of an art form, but the experts from Seed Savers Exchange say that the plant is ready after three or four leaves have died back but there are still five or six green leaves remaining. Avoid waiting too long, since the cloves will begin separating from the stalks in the ground if they remain too long.
Dig Up the Bulbs
Always dig up your garlic; never try to pull it out of the ground, as the stalks will likely separate from the bulbs. Garlic bulbs don't easily pull out of the ground in the way that onions do. Keep in mind that while you may have planted a small clove, the mature bulb is now several inches deep with a strong root system.
A garden fork works better than a shovel for digging garlic, although either will work. Loosen the soil and dig the garlic bulbs up carefully, taking care not to slice through them (a sliced bulb can be used immediately, but it can't be stored). Keep the shovel or fork well away from the bulb, then shake off the surrounding dirt by hand to separate it from the soil.
Cure the Garlic
Garlic should be cured or dried prior to 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 dry.
Allow the bulbs to cure for 3 to 4 weeks in either a well-ventilated room or a dry, shady spot outside. Sunlight can change the flavor of fresh garlic.
Once the tops and roots have dried, you can cut them off, if desired, or leave them on and braid the garlic into bundles of four to six plants. You can also further clean the bulbs by removing the outer skins. Just be careful not to expose any of the cloves.
Store the Bulbs
Keep your garlic in a dark, cool (32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit) place where it will still get some air circulation. Braiding and hanging garlic is a good way to store it, but don’t hang it in the kitchen where it will be exposed to bright light. You can also store garlic in a mesh bag.
Softneck varieties of garlic can be stored for 6 to 8 months. Check periodically to make sure it is not going soft or sprouting. Hardneck varieties may dry out, sprout, or go soft within 2 to 4 months. Storing hardnecks right at freezing temperature sometimes helps them survive for up to 7 months without deteriorating.
If you're a beginning seed saver, you'll be glad to know 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; planting small bulbs results in small bulbs next season. Store these bulbs at room temperature with fairly high humidity so they don't dry out.