the tricky matter of when to harvest garlic

garlic-in-handTIMING IS EVERYTHING, THEY SAY, AND WITH GARLIC HARVEST that’s especially true. But since the crop is hidden underground, how do you know when this edible Allium is ready—when it’s just the right moment to insure a well-formed head that will also store well through the winter and beyond? Like fortune-telling, it’s all in reading the leaves, apparently. When to harvest garlic–and how.

Don’t let its relatives mislead you. Garlic’s close cousin, the onion (Allium cepa), is more adaptable about its ideal moment to be lifted and cured. You can simply let the tops (leaves) die down right in place, delaying digging a bit to when it’s convenient. Or if you’re in a rush, move things along (assuming the bulbs are well-formed) by knocking over the foliage to urge the plants toward their finale.

With garlic, though, waiting until all the leaves go brown will promote overripe bulbs whose cloves are starting to separate from one another, and the resulting un-tight heads won’t store as long. Each leaf that browns is one fewer potential wrapper to protect the bulb. (Counterpoint: Harvesting too soon can also diminish the bulbs’ shelf life in storage, and may limit the bulbs reaching full size.)

garlic just harvestedMost “experts” say to harvest when several of the lower leaves go brown, but five or six up top are still green—and depending on the weather, this typically happens here in late July. Those are a few of mine just as they came from the ground one year. Early bouts of sustained spring heat can push the garlic a little ahead of schedule (as with so many other plants), and have my harvest curing extra-early, a process that takes three to eight weeks, before the tops will be cut off, the roots trimmed, and the cured bulbs stored.

In the curing there’s another difference between the most popular Allium cousins, garlic and onion: Assuming it’s a dry day when harvest comes, onions can be left out to dry right beside the rows you dug them from. Not so with garlic, which should be moved out of direct sunlight immediately once unearthed. Move it to a garage or porch or shed where the air circulation is good.

Harvesting garlic couldn’t be easier, as long as you remember one thing: Though tempting, do not try pulling the bulbs out by the above-ground stems, or at least without first loosening the soil alongside each row with a spading fork (not too close to the heads!). Garlic stores best when cured with its leaves on.

Other factors that affect the timing of garlic harvest besides the weather, is what kind of garlic you planted.

Softneck garlic (Allium sativum), the most 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…

'German Extra Hardy' has few cloves, each very large…because hardneck garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) is better-adapted to Northern winters (its long roots 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.

garlic scapesHardneck kinds also send up a scape—really a woody flower-stalk-to-be—around June, signaling a month or so remaining before bulb maturity. I cut the scapes off when they start to develop (above), and use them in stir-fries, oiled and grilled, or pureed with cheese as a pesto on pasta. I’m not being selfish by harvesting them then (though they are delicious); rather I’m telling the plants to put their energy into bulb production, not sexual reproduction.

Most experts agree that is the benefit of removal, though some say leaving it on produces better cloves for replanting as your “seed” stock. I frankly have no idea what’s true (as with so much of gardening, you go on gut); I cut them off.

I make it all sounds like a lot to ponder, but garlic is easy to grow. It took me a mere 15 minutes to harvest my crop of about 75 heads today, and not much work before that, frankly, either.

Once cured, I’ll stash most in a cold, dark spot–and freeze a portion of my harvest, so I have my own garlic all year round. More on storing (and freezing) for the long haul.

how i got to harvest: growing garlic

GARLIC IS PLANTED in the fall, around October locally in the Northeast, with the biggest and best cloves from the biggest and best heads of last year’s harvest chosen to use as the start of the next crop. (The full how-to on growing is here.)

I’ve also written before about harvest and curing details here (along with the subject of multiplier, or perennial, onions—which I didn’t do so well with in my Northern garden but mean to try again, but that’s another Allium story for another time).

172 comments
July 13, 2010

comments

  1. Kristi Cz says

    I harvested my garlic today. I read an article from another website that said it was okay to wash the dirt off, and because they were really caked with dirt, I went ahead and rinsed them gently. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I live in Colorado where the climate is extremely dry. I’ve got them hanging in my garage, where the temperature is about 80 degrees at its hottest.

    Also, I’ve got some huge bulbs the size of apples and some smaller bulbs about 2″ in diameter. Will it take longer for the big ones to cure? And how can I tell when they’re done curing?

    • margaret says

      I suspect the smaller ones will cure a bit faster, Kristi, but you’ll be able to tell. The roots will wither and the tops will be fully dry, too.

    • says

      You have garlic the size of apples? {insert me trying not to be jealous here} I planted garlic for the first time in the fall and LOVED the experience. They are waving in the wind and about a month out from harvest time. Thanks for the great harvesting advice. Can’t wait to indulge. No vampires here with the amount of garlic I consume. Tasty. Yum!!

    • margaret says

      Hi, Kyle. Most experts say a few weeks before harvest…but remember, it may decide to rain, so it’s not always controllable. A dry period before harvest makes it easier to dig and “dust off” the bulbs for curing.

  2. Tammy says

    Love all this info! I freeze any fresh herbs or herb mixes, like pesto, in a set of ice cube trays. I put the frozen teasures in a zip lock freezer bag and use, or share what and when ever the need comes up. Just some good info to share, wash trays thoroughly inbetween each herb or mix. you want to freeze and mark the bottoms ‘ HERB TRAYS’ to keep separate from you trays for your ice cubes for water :-/°

  3. sarahlovesgarlic says

    I am really enjoying reading about your garlic growing. I am fairly new with gardening but both my mother and MIL have taught me so much. Neither of them grow garlic so I am just reading and learning about this myself via web and books. I am SSSOOO excited about my garlic harvest this year and can’t wait to see how they turn out. We had a late starting season up in MN this year so I have been holding off on digging up my garlic. Thinking maybe this week or by this weekend it might be best. I just read that I can cut and use the “scraps” so I just cut them and will make them with dinner tonight. I have the Hardneck, not sure exactly what type though, but the bulbs on top were just breaking open to produce the flower. Do you want the flower to flower or cut b/4 flowering? Can you cut the scraps & dry them to make them seasonings for dishes all year long? What do you like to use the scraps for?

    I do grow garlic chives also and have found they ARE like a weed. I just keep cutting those back and see that I will never have a problem not having enough garlic chives. Ventured into eating the garlic chives flowers this year and WOW!! Intense but awesome!!

  4. jim phillips says

    thanks for the info as i am going to grow a crop here in oregon this coming year. trying to get all the info i can. again, thanks!

  5. bob says

    Just harvested my garlic not great this year about 1/3 of the plants didn’t survive last winter but the rest came out great

    • margaret says

      Sometimes wacky weather, or especially too-wet conditions, get to it before it roots in and established, I think, and who knows what else, but it sounds like you otherwise did OK. Any spots that are a bit shady, or where weeds get a foothold, can likewise make for less success.

  6. Tina says

    In the spring I planted three little garlic plants that I bought at a locak nursery because I like the looks and structure of the plant. Now I am wondering if I can harvest them? Your site says that garlic is planted in the fall so should I just leave them be and hope for a crop next summer or dig them out now? I live in St. Louis and we have been blessed with a lovely mid summer and adequate rain.

    Thanks

    • margaret says

      Typically even spring-planted garlic is harvested in late summer or fall — are about half the leaves showing signs of browning, which indicates readiness?

  7. Penny Sumner says

    My husband harvested our garlic and put them in water before setting them out to dry (needless to say I bugged out because I’ve never got water on harvested bulbs.) Did he ruin them? I am worried about the water not drying between cloves.

    • margaret says

      Hi, Penny. Hopwfully yhey will dry — get a fan going on low perhaps in the are where they are curing to speed the process?

  8. Joe Doran says

    I planted about 60 hard neck in early oct. on Cape Cod. Thank you for the harvesting info. I saw all the mistakes I made last year with a smaller crop.

  9. Rachel Y says

    Really appreciate your website and info, will be using it a lot as reference. Planted garlic ( I can’t be certain if it was hard neck, though I know it wasn’t the elephant variety) in November. Am here in zone 9 California, sacramento. First attempt and am so surprised to see them start growing in December after a decent rainfall. Now they are approaching the scape harvesting stage, was expecting them much later!

    • margaret says

      Interesting, Rachel, to hear the progress of your garlic, which sound very enthusiastic! :) Thanks for saying hello.

  10. katie says

    Hi Margaret
    Looking for some expert advice. I am in Northern Colorado and planted small and hard neck varieties in early November. We have had a lot of warm weather lately and I was shocked to see the garlic coming up this past week – mid February. Six inches of green above the ground. It is suppose to snow in a few days. Anything I can do to save them?
    Thanks for your help!

    Katie

    • margaret says

      They’re very hardy, Katie, and I would not worry. Happens with early blooming bulbs like daffodils and snowdrops sometimes, too.

  11. Nicole says

    Hi I’ve been reading on this site and I just stuck a garlic in the ground just for laughs and i completely forgot about it until now because they are coming up with green leaves and I was just wondering when should I harvest them. I’m new at this and any info would b greatly appreciated. Thanks

    • margaret says

      Hi, Nicole. As the article says, most places it is in July or August, having been planted the previous fall (and overwintered outdoors). In spring and summer let the foliage grow and dont harvest till the leaves start to brown from the bottom, and half of them are brown (the article explains).

    • bryan says

      depending on when you planted them. usually around 10 months or so. the leaves will tell you when they are ready. when the skin on the stalk are about 2 to 3 layers brown. there ready

  12. Karen says

    Waiting on my beautiful garlic. I look at the tall, green stems & wonder what’s growing under the soil. I can’t wait to see. How do you go about freezing your garlic? Thanks.

      • Karen says

        Thank you so much. I never realized that garlic could harbor botulism. I am a canner/freezer type of gardener. This year I’m growing using four different types of growing systems…straw bales, kiddie pools, raised beds, & containers. I surely follow safety procedures when harvest time comes and it is time to preserve. I’m glad I happened upon your site. I have it marked and will spend ample time perusing what you have here. I also subscribed to your newsletter.

  13. Jeff says

    hi,
    Thanks for the garlic tips. I’m in Az with no real winter to speak of, will this affect things? I just planted on a whim my first attempt at this. It’s growing incredibly. 1.5 ft tall in about a month.. Seems I’m on track to harvest by July or August by what I have read above. Am I on target?

  14. james markham says

    first time garlic grower. not sure which kind i have. planted oct.’14 stalk is 4 feet tall w/blossoms out. guess ill go to the trial and error method.

    • bryan says

      hey dick, cut the scapes off-if plan to eat the garlic. if you leave the scapes on, they will flower and suck all the garlic oil out of the bulb

  15. Doris says

    Just happened upon your website and have thoroughly enjoyed reading it. This is my second year growing and harvesting garlic. Last years crop was excellent with absolutely no problems. This year, not so much. I made the mistake of planting a clove of garlic in the holes of a standard size cinder/cement block. Actually thought it was genius since I used the main bed surrounded by the blocks for my onions. Unfortunately, the garlic is smaller than those grown in an actual bed (I put some in with other plants). Help —my garlic has something that looks like a white fuzzy mold on some of the bulbs. This did not happen last year and I am at a loss what to do. Are they still edible? Should I continue to try to cure them? Please answer as I don’t know what to do with them and they are drying now. Oh yes, the bulbs were covered with moist soil when I dug them up. Thanks for such a wonderful site and anxiously awaiting your response.

    • margaret says

      Not sure where you live, Doris, but this is generally very early for garlic to be ready. Had half the leaves browned down on their own already?

    • bryan says

      your garlic probably got a disease called white rot, which is the only disease that attacks garlic.

      u never want to use concrete with the planting of veggies or herbs. they will always have lower yields or not grow at all

  16. Doug says

    Great Article,

    Here in Tumwater WA, we cut scapes today, most have just over one revolution aka curl it seems a little ahead of last years mark but all is well.

    Growing hardneck Rocambole Killarney Red, last year was awesome turned 2 pounds of seed into 10 pounds of garlic never enough when neighbors and family see it growing what is that? Looking to harvest mid july been pretty dry here watering a little for another 10 – 14 days then no more water. I pickled my scapes last year just cracked my last jar for some pesto, looks like I am canning another couple jars for this winter.

  17. Kat says

    Down here in Texas, my porcelain music (I think? … Maybe? I bought it at a green grocer, so who knows what it honestly is.) is starting to grow ready to harvest, so once again I am visiting your posts as a reminder and inspiration.

    Thank you for the marvelous resource you’ve curated.

  18. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says

    My scapes were ready about 2 weeks ago and made into glorious pesto. I favor a recipe that includes fresh lemon juice and almonds. I froze the pesto as cubes and will use them for pasta sauces in the coming months. The first year I grew garlic, I trimmed the scapes and chucked them onto the compost heap like an imbecile. I know better now.

    The hardneck variety I am growing here is Music. My garlic foliage seems to be less than half tan so I am waiting a bit to harvest. We have had a lot of unseasonable early heat here this year and I may be ahead of schedule for harvest which is almost always July 4th. I’m not sure they will go another 2 weeks, especially with the hot temperatures coming up this week.

    Each year I grow garlic, I get better at it. Storage is admittedly my downfall, but we greatly enjoy eating the fruits of this labor. And the entire garage smells wonderful while the garlic cures on screens for good circulation.

  19. Patty L says

    Last year the hardneck garlic bulbs in my garden threw up lots of scapes.
    This year my hardneck garlic seems to be growing beautifully but they’re not producing scapes. Love the scapes for cooking.
    Do you have suggestions for growing hadneck garlic that produces scapes?

    Thank you for your help.

  20. Blackeye says

    Found some really nice garlic at Walmart red paper huge cloves 4-5 to head seems to be hard stem, want to try to freeze heads for planting. I plant in late October and afraid it wont keep till then. Any tips, any one done this?
    Also when using garlic on a daily basis I take the (too small to use cloves) and stick them in the flower garden use them like chives always have a steady supply…

  21. says

    Although i have never planted Garlic in my small garden, i was considering to plant it next year when i have collected sufficient information about it. I value Garlic for it’s medicinal properties and for the wonderful taste it adds to my food. Thank you for sharing this again.

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