Growing garlic 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, you could have fresh garlic all winter.
Getting Ready to Harvest
Once the tops of your garlic plants start to die back, you know it’s time to harvest. Most people plant their garlic in the fall and then sit back and wait. Growing garlic is an act of faith. As with most root vegetables, you won’t know how things are going until the moment of truth. By contrast, 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.
Start preparing a few weeks before harvest time. When you see the leaves starting 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.
When to Harvest
When to dig 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.
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.
Not all garlic varieties mature at the same time. Artichoke garlic matures first, then Rocamboles, followed by Purple Stripes, Porcelains, and, finally, Silverskins.
How to Harvest
Always dig up your garlic; never try to pull it out of the ground. Keep in mind that while you may have planted a small clove, the bulb is now several inches deep with a strong root system.
A garden fork works better than a shovel. The fork helps you loosen the soil and shake free the bulbs. You can use a shovel, but you might be tempted to get too close to the cloves and accidentally slice through them. A sliced bulb can still be used, but it can’t be stored. Even when using a fork, start digging several inches away from the plant and gradually loosen the soil around the bulb. Don't underestimate the strength of the roots.
Curing Fresh Garlic
Garlic should be cured or dried prior to keeping for use or long-term storage. Start by brushing off any soil 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 three to four 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 if plan to braid the garlic. You can also further clean the bulbs by removing the outer skins. Just be careful not to expose any of the cloves.
Keep your garlic in a cool (32 to 40 F), dark place where it will still get some air circulation. Braiding and hanging garlic is a good way to keep 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 or dish.
Softneck varieties of garlic can be stored for six to eight months. Check periodically to make sure it is not going soft or sprouting. Hardneck varieties may dry out, sprout, or go soft within two to four months. Keeping hardnecks at 32 F sometimes helps them survive for up to seven months without deteriorating.
Saving Seed Cloves
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; small bulbs result in small cloves. Store bulbs for replanting at room temperature with fairly high humidity, so they don't dry out.