growing and storing a year of garlic

garlic with press 2MY HOMEGROWN CROP OF GARLIC GETS ME TO ALMOST FEBRUARY, and then it’s just not what it used to be. You know how it goes—you’ve bought late-winter cloves that start to sprout and just don’t feel as firm or weigh what they did before time took its toll. I don’t have a perfect storage spot; considering that, I do quite well. But these days I lay in a supply in the freezer, too, following safe, sane methods—no, you cannot just pack it in oil and refrigerate! My tactics for growing, harvesting and enjoying a year of garlic. Both softneck and hardneck types are welcome here, by the way—dare I ask which camp you’re in?

Like any bulb, garlic is a little particular about above-ground storage conditions. Once it’s fully cured, commercially grown garlic is stored in the dark at about 32 degrees and 65 percent humidity, and depending on the species and variety, may last six months or even longer.

My very primitive basement—an old stone foundation, no heat except for the little bit given off by the furnace—is a bit too warm, but I have tried hanging the garlic heads in mesh bags from the rafters (as I have with my onions). Even better is a barely heated room above my garage, which stays around 40. Don’t put all your harvest in one spot if you’re not sure how it will fare; experiment with your two or three best possible spots.

cloves of garlic to freeze

into the deep freeze

THIS YEAR I’M FREEZING a portion of my harvest, trying a few methods gathered from university extension services and my collection of preserving books. Important note:

Even at below 40 degrees, such as in the refrigerator, you run the risk of harmful bacteria forming after about a week, including spores of Clostridium botulinum, the cause of botulism. Oil-packed peeled garlic sold in the market contains a preservative, such as citric acid. Achieving safe preservation this way is best left to commercial packers.

(Ditto with your oil-packed sun- or oven-dried tomatoes—something I shudder when I think I did for many years. Better to dry the tomatoes, pack them crisp in airtight bags, then soften a week’s worth at a time in oil before using. Herb-infused oils, particularly those with garlic, run the same risk.)

The trouble: bacteria can form in water droplets trapped within the oil, says the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Plus garlic is a low-acid food (therefore more prone to bacteria formation), and the low-oxygen conditions that bacteria loves are ideal thanks to the oil packing. A perfect storm.

  • Whole, unpeeled cloves can be frozen as is at harvest time, then thawed and used as needed. But I prefer to peel each batch, toss them lightly in oil and freeze them in bags or jars (above).
  • Some people prefer the convenience of making a log or small brick of chopped garlic—not unlike my parsley logs—and slicing off just what is needed for a recipe.
  • Likewise, a puree of garlic and olive oil can be frozen like my other pestos, in cubes or small containers.  (The University of California at Davis recommends 1 part garlic to 2 parts oil, for a sauté mixture that remains safely frozen but is soft enough to scrape the needed amount off at any time.)
  • With all freezer methods, freeze immediately after preparation; do not refrigerate or store at room temperature even briefly first.
  • Sometimes in midwinter, if I see that I have too much garlic and onions still in storage and worry they won’t last, I freeze them in bags or jars, as whole unpeeled cloves, this way.

the cultivation of allium sativum

GARLIC COULDN’T BE EASIER TO GROW: Plant like any bulb in fall; topdress with organic fertilizer when shoots start really growing in spring; keep it well-watered during active growth; weed well. The details:

'German Extra Hardy' has few cloves, each very large

hardneck versus softneck: which to grow?

SOFTNECK GARLIC (Allium sativum), the common type of supermarket familiarity, has a row of largish outer cloves and a row or two of inner small ones. It would keep better than what I grow, but I like the bigger (though fewer-per-head) cloves of the hardneck kind (shown above), which also has the bonus of producing scapes (flower stalks that you cut off and eat before bloom) in May or thereabouts.

My reason:  Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) is better-adapted to Northern winters (its long roots–or at least before I trimmed them after curing–hold it in the heave-and-thaw ground especially well), and frankly I just hate all those tiny inner cloves of softneck at peeling time. Nor does comparatively puny softneck make as nice a roasted head of garlic as the bigger-cloved kind.

time to order: garlic sources

OCTOBER IS PLANTING TIME in my Zone 5B, late in the month, since about a month before frost is in the ground is perfect timing. Order early, though, for best selection. Eventually, if all goes well, you’ll achieve garlic independence (where you have enough heads for eating and to supply your own “seed” cloves). Some sources of organic “seed” garlic, meaning bulbs to divide up into cloves for planting.

September 8, 2010


  1. judi says

    Such great information…I am learning all the time. I just recieved my order of garlic to plant. Last year I planted in the spring with the rest of the garden…..let’s just write that off as a mistake and forget about it…..Oh and did I mention I have garlic loving squirrels in my garden. So now they go into the enclosed and electric fences garden. Here hoping for a vampire free next summer…thanks for the info.

  2. Bonny says

    My favorite way to freeze less than perfect garlic is to chop it in the food processor, with a small amount of oil and salt. Put it in a small zip loc freezer bag, smash all of the air out, put it in another bag and freeze flat, maybe 1/4 inch thick. That way I can break off whatever size chunks I need. It will keep over a year this way.

  3. Beth says

    So are you saying it’s ok to chop garlic, add chopped fresh basil and olive oil, and freeze in ice cube trays then transfer to a freezer bag?
    Love your blog!

  4. lin says

    Thanks. Very good ideas on your blog. I pulled apart cloves and planted then root down. Once they had been covered with dirt, I covered them with straw. Hope the animals don’t get after them. I may have made a mistake as I dried my garlic in August; then I put in mesh bag and hung off a shelf in my dark storage room. But it is only (at the least) 62 degrees there. I don’t know anything about making a log and freezing it. Sounds like the best way for me.

    • margaret says

      I bet it will all be fine, Lin. Mine has sat in my barn curing since August, too, and I will plant the cloves I want for next year’s harvest this week, then store the rest inside in a cool spot.

  5. Diane says

    My daughter had a baby and forgot her 5 gal bucket of garlic in the garage and it froze solid. Is there any way to make use of it? Any ideas would be appreciated.

    • margaret says

      If it had simply gone from fresh to frozen solid, no risk of freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw and maybe decay in the process, I’d keep it frozen put putting heads into my freezer in bags (assuming you could get the heads out of the bucket!) and use it gradually after that for cooking. Some people do freeze their cloves without peeling (I peel first). But it sounds as if it’s one giant 5-gallon mass…which you could maybe peel and make a vat of garlic soup out of, but I never like using ingredients that weren’t frozen in a safe and sustained manner, not to mention that they deteriorate flavor- and texture-wise even if they did prove safe.

  6. David says

    Last year was my first to grow any significant amount of garlic. Everything went well including following your directions for harvesting and drying the bulbs. Dry storage went well also by placing bulbs in onion bags and storing in a fairly dark and dry area of my pantry. I ran into real problems when I segregated the cloves (did not peel totally) freezing them on a cookie sheet to prevent sticking together and then freezing them in foodsaver vacuum packs.
    Everything seemed fine until I thawed them to find they had pretty much turned internally to dark yellow mushiness and little flavor ?
    Any thoughts ???

    • margaret says

      I don’t know if you froze them when they were recently harvested and cured, or more recently. Unless they are in a very cool spot before using or freezing, they can deteriorate, which then if frozen might add to the trouble. The best results from freezing are pretty close to just after curing. As mentioned I peel, then toss lightly in olive oil, then freeze in bags or jars. In bags it’s easy to break off a clove or two to add to a recipe.

      Also: I don’t thaw mine but use them whole in recipes, as I expect they would get mushy if thawed as you describe. Friends chop their fresh cloves first, mix with a tiny bit of oil, and freeze in logs, if it’s chopped garlic they are after for recipes later.

  7. Teresa Montgomery says

    My garlic garden started last fall on a full moon in October. The month before I had visited my local very organic farmers market up in the Blue Ridge. This man had several varieties. I bought 5 types and am waiting to harvest. I used a wooden box and covered it with straw all winter. When I go to harvest I am removing the box and hopefully they will be perfect. Good to know about the leaf count. Thanks.

    • margaret says

      I’ve never grown it in a container (you mention a box?), Teresa. Will be interesting to hear how it does!

  8. Cindy French says

    Thanks for the information! I like to roast my garlic and then squeeze it out of the peelings into small bags or jars and freeze. It’s easy to use at any time.

  9. Terry says

    I received some garlic from an old friend (now deceased)about ten or eleven years ago. I had my moments over the years with not harvesting soon enough, and not curing it properly, but I haven’t bought a head of garlic since. Thank you Wendell! I do all of the above except freezing, and will try that. Thanks for passing on the info!

  10. JoAnne says

    Thanks for the information on freezing garlic. I’ve always dry stored it and it doesn’t last a year. I think I’ll try making a garlic log. We harvest in June usually in Kentucky.

  11. Roo says

    I read that all of the garlic plant is edible. Someone suggested making a garlic vinegar using the green leaves which are cut off when I harvest the bulbs. (not talking about the scapes) Most of the recipes I found on-line use the cloves. Anybody try making garlic vinegar with the leaves?

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