Harvesting Garlic in the Home Garden

Bunch of fresh garlic on the table

With garlic, it would seem the devil is in the details of when is the best time for harvesting garlic from the garden.

Garlic bulbs are hidden underground. So how do you tell when they’re ready? When is the right moment to insure a well-formed bulb head that will store through the winter?

1. When to harvest garlic

Pioneer Dad suggests waiting until the leaves go completely brown may give the gardener overripe bulbs with cloves beginning to separate from each other. The resulting loose heads won’t store as long over winter. Each leaf that browns is one less wrapper to protect the bulb. Harvesting too soon can reduce the bulbs’ shelf life in storage also. This may limit the bulbs reaching full size.

Most garlic aficionados say “harvest when several of the lower leaves go brown and five or six up top are still green.” This typically happens during summer, June to July.

Garlic bulbs should be moved out of direct sunlight immediately once unearthed. Move them to a dark garage, basement or shed with good air circulation.

2. The correct way to harvest garlic

The actual harvesting is surprisingly easy. Do not pull the bulbs out by the stems. Loosen the soil alongside each head with a spading fork and lift them up and out of the soil.

Garlic stores best when cured with its leaves on.

Softneck garlic, which is what is found in most Southern supermarkets, has a row of large outer cloves followed by a row or two of inner small ones. It stores better than most varieties of hardneck garlic.

Hardneck garlic is better adapted to Northern winters and may be found in Northern supermarkets.

Hardneck varieties also send up a woody flower-stalk-to-be around June. This signals a month or so to go for bulb maturity. Some gardeners cut the flower-stalks off when they start to develop to allow the garlic to put their energy into bulb production, not reproduction. The jury is still out on whether this helps or not.

3. Proper storage of garlic for fall and winter

Store in a cool, well-ventilated place out of the sunlight. The ideal storage temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees. Properly stored garlic should last most of the winter before turning soft and losing its flavor. Freezing a portion is OK but avoid the refrigerator as it leads to sprouting.

The University of California/Davis advises “If you grow your own garlic, it is important to let it mature after harvest. Spread the harvested garlic heads or bulbs on paper or wire racks out of direct sunlight in a well-ventilated place to cure for 2 to 3 weeks or until skins are papery. Store it in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place in well-ventilated containers such as mesh bags. Storage life is 3 to 5 months under cool 60°F dry, dark conditions.”

4. The dangers of long-term garlic storage

This is important! Even at below 40 degrees, as in the refrigerator, garlic heads are at risk of harmful bacteria forming after about a week, including but not limited to spores of Clostridium botulinum, the cause of botulism.

Commercial oil-packed peeled garlic sold in supermarkets contains a preservative agent, usually citric acid. Achieving a safe preservation this way is best left to the commercial suppliers. Don’t oil-pack this at home.

The same holds true for oil-packed or sun dried or oven dried tomatoes. Its better and safer to dry the tomatoes, pack them crisp in airtight bags. Herb-infused oils, particularly those with garlic, run the same deadly risk.

The National Center for Home Food Preservation advises garlic is a low-acid food and therefore more prone to bacteria formation. The low-oxygen conditions that bacteria loves are ideal with oil packing. So, practice safety first in the home kitchen.

5. Additional garlic tips

Garlic is one of the most versatile vegetables in the garden and pantry and garlic is easy to grow. Pioneer Dad’s winter supply is usually quickly exhausted due to his obsession with roasted garlic and Italian cooking.

Beyond the obvious kitchen applications, garlic makes a good household cleanser when combined with vinegar.

Garlic is frequently used to treat everything from cold sores and acne to athlete’s foot.

Growing Garlic in the garden is Easy

Garlic vegetable growing agriculture

Fall is the time for growing garlic in the garden. Pioneer Dad loves planting several rows of garlic. But, with garden space at a premium this year I’m limited to small clusters of garlic which still make a fine accent when they bloom. Plant garlic in a flowerbed where more height is needed in the center of colorful bedding plants.

If I had the extra space, I’d plant an entire bed of garlic. But, that would require cutting back on other herbs and vegetables. I can never seem to grow enough to last the entire year. Come mid-winter, I’m searching the stores for decent heads of garlic. That’s another story in itself.

Garlic is one of those perfect vegetables that looks great, tastes great and requires a modest amount of space for a good harvest. And perhaps even more important, it makes a great pest repellant for gardens. Many bugs hate garlic. It may not drive them completely out of of the garden, but it will discourage many. Results are mixed when it comes to bugs. I’ve had good luck with garlic as a repellant.

Most varieties of garlic are frost tolerant and happy in a broad range of climates zones from 3-9 and produce numerous bulbs after a long growing season. Beyond its culinary uses, garlic, used with vinegar, is as an effective household cleaner.

1. Choosing the best garlic variety for the garden

Garlic can be broken down into two basic groups or varieties.

Softneck varieties: feature necks that stay soft after harvest. These are the ones that you see braided. Especially recommended for those in warmer climate zones. They are less winter-hardy than other types. Softnecks have a strong, intense flavor. Recommended varieties include: Persian Star and Mother of Pearl.

Stiffneck varieties: grow one ring of cloves around the stem. There is not a layer of cloves as there are in softnecks. But, they are extremely cold hardy. Stiffnecks do not store as well or as long as their warm weather cousins. The flavor is milder than softnecks. Recommended Variety: Carpathian.

A reputable retail nursery can recommend proper varieties to plant for your climate zone or microclimate area.

For more exotic options, check out: The Garlic Store or Filaree Farm for hundreds of other varieties, growing tips and garlic books.  Local farmer’s markets are another good source of seed stock.

2. Planting in the garden garlic

Garlic should be planted in the early fall for a summer harvest. Garlic likes full sun and rich, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic to neutral. Typical yield if 10 to 30 bulbs per 10-ft. row.

Break up the bulb into individual segments or cloves. Choose the largest ones and plant pointed end up (root end down). Space the cloves 3-6 inches apart in rows 15 inches apart. If planting elephant garlic, increase the space to 8 inches apart. Bury the clove tips about two inches down.

Keep the soil moist. Stop watering when the leaves turn brown. Fertilizer is not needed with garlic.

3. Harvesting garlic

In early summer when the leafy tops fall over, gently lift garlic heads with a garden fork. Do not pull the tops by hand. For additional harvesting and storage tips, read the linked article on garlic harvesting.

Air-dry the bulbs and cut off most of the tops and roots. Store in a cool, well-ventilated place out of the sunlight. The ideal storage temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees. Avoid the refrigerator as it leads to sprouting.

4. Additional garlic tips

Garlic has many uses in the kitchen. Roasted garlic is one of my favorite culinary ingredients. Take 30 minutes to roast a head or two of garlic, it makes a tasty spread for garlic bread, and for dishes like chopped clams on angel hair pasta it’s unbeatable for its added subtle layers of flavor.

Angel Hair Pasta with Clams

Angel hair pasts with clams makes a quick and Easy dinner for two that is perfect when you forget to take anything out of the freezer. Pioneer Dad always has several cans of clams in the pantry for last minute dips or dinners. This recipe suggests … [Continue reading]