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).

July 13, 2010


  1. Genevieve says

    Hi! I recently bought a house in Weatherford, Texas and it is quickly becoming very obvious that the former owners were avid gardeners. I have what I believe to be garlic sprouting up in ma couple of my flower beds. Is there anyway to tell what kind without harvesting?

    • says

      If it’s in flower beds, Genevieve, I wonder if it’s some other Allium (onion/garlic) relative. There are garlic-lookalike weeds as well as flowering bulbs (as well as edible ones). Got a photo to email (use the contact link at the bottom of the page).

  2. says

    I have a recipe for a quiche that calls for garlic scallions. Just what are these? I am familiar with scallions, of course, but have never heard of these. I have a bed of (hardneck) garlic which I planted last Fall…could I pull one of these to use in the recipe or do I need to look for some in the market?

    Thanks for any information you can provide.

    • hortensia says

      Garlic scallions may also refer to a different member of the family. They are often found in Asian markets. They have flat leaves and have no bulb at the bottom at any time. They are usually stir fried with scrambled eggs.

    • Tony Lim says

      I think it refers to garlic chive, Allium tuberosum, that has white flowers. There is also the common chive or onion chive, Allium schoenoprasum, with pink flowers.

  3. Sam Yachup says

    I found your comments very informative. I have been growing garlic for the past 12 years and have enjoyed great success. Knowing when to harvest can be tricky and trying to explain it by when and how brown the leaves turn is difficult. For the most part I have found the second week in July works well here in the Albany area and while harvesting too early can cause storage problems I have found I would prefer to harvest a week early rather than a week late.

  4. says

    Quick question: I just pulled my first attempt at garlic (and they’re huge and gorgeous) and many of the tiny yellow/gold bulb-like things that were attached to the roots have stayed in the ground. Is this seed garlic and if so, do I need to water the mound where my garlic used to be for next year?

    P.S. I’m in Texas, where the general vegetable-growing season started in March.

    • says

      Hi, Dana. Are they bulbils (like tiny bulbs)? Some varieties produce those up top (so-called topset, after the flower ripens) and some below ground. Do they look like this example from elephant garlic (I had trouble finding good photos from other kinds online)? They won’t produce full-sized heads next year, but rather sort of one-clove “rounds” as the young bulbs are sometimes called. If you want to increase your stock you could plant these in an area of their own but I’d replant big, full-sized cloves for your 2014 crop.

  5. says

    Yes, that is exactly what we have. In fact, I’m pretty sure “elephant garlic” was the name of the seed garlic we bought. :O)

    Thanks for your help! I guess I’ll leave ‘em in the ground and plant new seed garlic in another spot this fall.

  6. Jana says

    Thanks for this article. I’ve been growing garlic for years and just a few years ago learned that I should cut the scapes. Now you have made me realize I’ve been waiting too long to harvest them, and possibly shortening their storage life. I will not make that mistake this season!

  7. dan in los angeles says

    I grow potatoes and onions in my raised bed garden. Thought I’d try garlic this year since my local OSH hardware store had garlic starters. I wish they (and me) knew that March is too late to plant it, especially here in southern CA. My plants are pathetic, withering, tiny things. So sad.

  8. bill says

    What I have been doing for many years to keep potato’s, onions and garic for up to a year is using spagnum peat moss. I bought several large plastic storage containers with lids, drill a couple dozen 1/2″ holes in the lids and begin with a layer of peat moss and then a layer of potato’s. Cover them with another layer of peat moss and then continue this till the container is full. Snap the lid on tight and sit in a cool dark area. I use my garage since it is attached to the house and it never goes below freezing. I have done the same with onions and garlic. You need seperate containers for each crop. The spagnum not only helps keep the harvest dry and dark but if by chance a potato does go bad, the spagnum absorbs the juice and keeps it from spreading. My neighbor used to store his in baskets and sure enough, once a potato went bad, it spread to the rest and he lost well over half his harvest. In the spring, the potato’s will begin to send out roots but just snap them off when ready to cook. I do the same with garlic and onions and have found they keep for up to a year…try this tip and you will be eating last years crop clear up to when you harvest this year’s. You can either use the old spagnum in the garden or sift it with a 1/2″ mesh screen and re-use it year after year….

  9. Madelon says

    Impulsively l decided to harvest my flowering garlic. Having read some of your information on how to harvest garlic l did not see anything about the flowering stage. My allium has been in flowering for the past month, got tired of them leaning over and the lower leaves were definitely brown.
    My question, is this safe to eat? Thank you.

    • says

      Hi, Madelon. You can eat it any time in its life cycle, and all the parts — though some are more delicious and tender than others! Some people do harvest a bit of their crop early, usually in spring, as “green garlic” or “spring garlic” (immature but lovely).

  10. Dana says

    Don’t take the issue of cutting scapes so lightly! if you don’t remove the scapes and that doesn’t mean droping them in your garden! All of those bulbils are garlic seeds, and they can become way too prolific, like a bad weed, producing undersized garlic. You can really lose control and have tons of plants all too close together. You want to plant bigger cloves and have nice controlled bulbs, not thousands of volunteers! Same with not harvesting on time — if the bulbs are falling apart when you harvest, you will have a bunch of volunteers that need thinning.

  11. Kate says

    I know what you mean about peeling those tiny cloves in the middle of the soft neck variety. My solution: Plant them instead!

    • says

      Hi, Kate. I only plant the biggest cloves from the biggest heads (“selecting” that way in favor of large/large as I improve my strain year after year). I eat all the little ones! : )

  12. Dawn says

    I have been growing garlic for about three years. Every year I sort out the larger cloves to plant and use my food processor to grind up the smaller ones. To those I add olive oil, place in small jars and freeze for use during the following months. I tried to store them, but didn’t have much luck with that so decided to freeze to be sure. Has worked well for me.

    • melissa says

      I freeze my crop by mincing garlic in my food processor then fill small ziploc type baggies to freeze. No oil required and keeps really well. Just remember to keep it thin. It’s much easier to break off what you need without having to thaw the whole bag.

  13. Eileen says

    Some varieties can be planted in the spring, even in colder climates, they won’t be as large and they won’t be harvested as early, but they are just fine. I bought some the first year I ever planted from Cook’s Garden…they were ok, small heads, soft necks I believe. But the fall plantings ( I personally love filaree farm for seed cloves) are huge and wonderful and keep very well…I still am eating some and have a few cloves left from last summer, as I get ready to harvest this years.

  14. John says

    Thank you! Bought a house in December and was excited to find out what I thought were onions were really garlic… but now what to do!

  15. Virginia says

    Have you ever simply cleaned the garlic cloves and frozen them in a baggie? They last forever, thaw in a few minutes, and are somewhere between roasted and fresh garlic. I save all my garlic this way…..No waste.

  16. Sarah says

    Thank you for your guidance. Is it too late in June to plant another crop in July for harvest in November? I’m assuming the bulbs won’t have time to grow as big but even if I get some smaller heads I’ll be able to use them. Suggestions? Thank you.

    • margaret says

      Hi, Sarah. Garlic needs most of a year in the ground to make any kind of bulb at all. What you will get if you plant cloves now and harvest in fall is just “garlic greens,” the foliage that has a garlicky flavor (stronger than chives, and wider, but that kind of thing).

    • margaret says

      Hi, Belinda. Alley Swiss, owner of Filaree Garlic Farm (organic grower for decades), says: “The Turban group [of garlic] includes many beautiful varieties that do well in warm climates. For those who live in the sub-tropical coastal areas in this region, varieties in the Artichoke garlic and Turban groups are the best bet.” They have a selection of those on their website, as do the serious growers.

    • margaret says

      Hi, Judith. If you harvest early (like June, maybe even early July here) before the bulb wraps itself in the papery skins that we are familiar with (and before each clove gets wrapped, too), it’s “wet” garlic. Mostly farmers who carefully dig some bulbs then for the market call it “spring garlic.” Again: no papery wrappings on the heads (or cloves) so it’s delicate and white and you have to dig and handle extra carefully.

  17. Tina says

    Thank you Margaret for the reminder to check on my garlic.
    Here in Missouri I plant the hardneck garlic also, tried both but the hardneck survived. This is my second year growing garlic. The first year I was serious, I had 3 rows with 35 cloves in each row (softneck, hardneck, and a row of grocery store garlic). I started in October that year, mulched them too much and ended up with 5 – 6 bulbs of hardneck garlic. So this past October I planted one small corner of the garden with 3 bulbs worth of cloves. I mulched them lightly. With a winter that froze everything at 20 below zero (F) I thought my garlic corner was done for. To my surprise I had some survivors! I just went out to my garden and dug up 18 bulbs of organic garlic. They’re on the small size but I’m glad to have them. I ordered the original hardneck and softneck garlic from “Seeds from Italy.”
    They have a “heads-up” list you can join to be notified when the fall crop is ready to order. I also order heirloom tomato and vegetable seeds from them.
    ….Thanks again.

  18. says

    Yesterday was pesto day here in Maine. We cut all the scapes and got to work: 1/2 pound of garlic scapes, 1 cup olive oil, chopped in food processor, then 2 cups parmesan mixed in, I do find a little parsley helps tame the taste, ground up initially with the scapes and oil. . Next year I should plant a lot more parsley just to have the leaves at pesto time. I could pull the excess plants later, Instead, I gave away many of my parsley seedlings this year. I freeze it in serving size baggies, and put them together in a giant ziplock bag. It is great on pasta all winer long. We like it on crackers, too. We made 9 batches yesterday. That’s a lot of scapes. The next big preservation project will be strawberry jam.

  19. Shawna says

    Hi! I’m new to growing garlic, and have a few plants I’m unsure of when to harvest. I’m in WI, and my plants look to have “mini cloves” growing on the stem! Should I cut those off? Or leave them? Thank you so much! I found your article, along with everyone’s comments informative!

    • margaret says

      Hi, Shawna. Some garlic varieties make bulbils up top after the flower ripens, and you may see the description “topset” when these kinds are referred to. The bulbils are not exactly seed technically speaking, but can be used to start new garlic plants like seed. They won’t produce full-sized heads next year, but rather sort of one-clove “rounds” as the young bulbs are sometimes called. I cut off the flower stems before they get to this point, however, to hopefully tell the plant to send all its energy into producing the underground bulbs instead of the little topset ones.

  20. 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.

    • 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.

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