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).

185 comments
July 13, 2010

comments

  1. 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…

    • Jeff says

      Be careful with planting Wal-Mart or grocery store garlic. They often treat their garlic with something to keep it from being planted. Your best bet is to get a couple of different varieties from the farmers market and plant that. You’ll get better garlic and won’t have to worry about it not growing.

      • margaret says

        Absolutely, Jeff; same with potatoes. Start with a certified “seed garlic” (or potato) or organic starts from the farmers’ market, definitely.

  2. 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.

  3. says

    I have had better results storing garlic hanging on the back of my kitchen door, in the warm it doesn’t sprout so quickly and now still have very usable garlic from last year, when I stored it in a cool place over winter it started to sprout in January.
    Thanks for the advice as when to pick I will leave mine a little longer, although I have got some rust…

  4. says

    Great info! I’m partial to German Extra Hardy garlic. It’s reliable every year for me. Do you know the specific reason for not pulling the bulbs up by the necks as long as the plant stays intact? I’ve read that elsewhere and just wondered. Thank you!

    • margaret says

      Just because of the risk of damaging the connection between stem and bulbs until the bulb fully cures, Hannah.

  5. David Mogg says

    On my allotment today and dug up a few of my Thermidrome garlic (Hampshire UK) after our very hot spell. Agree best harvested when about half the leaves have turned brown and the rest green; or in my case the rest green and covered in rust but doesn’t seem to affect the crop! Good looking cloves and with the courgettes picked today I shall do fried garlic, prawns and sliced courgettes with lemon juice on toast for lunch tomorrow. Solent Wight also nearly ready but don’t look quite so big above ground. Would encourage anyone who loves garlic to have a go – planted mine on the 25th October 2014 – so just over 3 months and we start again.

  6. Thomas E. Barrett says

    …informative, crisp and good illustrations – readers make a forum of helpful information as well.
    I’ve been growing garlic for several years – and live upstate New York(Otsego County) – normally, we garlic growers in this area aim for Columbus day +/- to plant garlic cloves … last Fall 2014, I was unable to plant in October due to other urgent matters. At the time I was finally free to plant by early December the ground was frozen! However, when the weather gave a break of warming temperatures between Christmas and New Years – 420 cloves went into the ground(the soil was contained in 16 inch high raised garden beds) – there were three varieties: white, red German and Elmer’s Top set – a variety from Cherry Valley, NY – I was concerned having missed the “early start” in October; however, the garlic plants came on strong this spring. They now look vibrant … especially the Elmer’s Top set.
    Garlic plants appear to be on time for harvest in 2 – 3 weeks.

    Thanks for the site
    “Noli Me Tangere”

  7. Sherry G says

    I planted garlic, for the first time ever, in October 2013. Nothing at all came up the following Spring or Summer. I just left the bed alone. Much to my surprise, it came up THIS Spring, 2015!!!!! It seems to be fine! Oh, and clusters of eight or nine bulbs came up at each site! I just picked several today. What’s up with that???? (I live in Southern Wisconsin)

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