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garlic harvest and curing: i did something right

garlic-in-handI MENTION GARLIC HARVEST IN this month’s chores, but each year I need to remind myself of all the finer details: when to dig, exactly; how long to cure; where to store. So shall we have a quick review (and a look at the largest heads I ever grew, thanks to following my own advice carefully and feeding when the shoots were up and growing in spring)?

I used to get confused and wait to harvest the bulbs until the topgrowth was all brown, the way you let daffodils and tulips and other bulbs fully “ripen” before removing the foliage.

In fact, prime harvest time is when some lower leaves have gone brown but about a half-dozen up top are still green. For me that was a week or so ago; depending on the year, it can be July or August. Carefully dig one or two heads, and check to see that the cloves are wrapped nicely in papery tissue; that the heads are really ready. To get them out of the ground without damaging the cloves, loosen the soil around the perimeter of the planting carefully (not unlike you’d do with potatoes) before reaching in to dislodge the crop. Don’t just pull on each stem, because you want to cure the heads with their stems and foliage intact for best results.

With your hands, gently brush off the extra soil but do not wash the heads or dislodge the papery covering.

Plan to lay the heads on screening or hang then in a dry but not sunny spot, such as a porch or garage, where they will need several weeks of thorough drying (and as much as two months, if the season is a bit humid). A dank shed or basement is not the right place; think airy and dry. I often put mine on a heavy framed screen on top of a spare garden cart, and wheel them outside (in the bright shade–not baking in the sun, which will damage the bulbs) each dry day.

Once cured, cut the stalks down to an inch above the bulbs, and trim the roots. More soil will fall away; again, do not wash the bulbs. Store the cured heads in net bags in a cool, dry spot; Ronniger’s, the potato and garlic experts, state the ideal range as 35-50 degrees. In my imperfect cellar it lasts about four months (six to eight is possible in a better spot), so I freeze part of my harvest to have garlic year round. Here’s how to do that, either after curing or around the New Year or so.

garlic
If you harvested your own garlic, save the best heads with the biggest cloves for replanting about a month before frost is in the ground (I plant in mid-October). This simple tactic is the basis of the breeding tactic called selection–would a dairy farmer breed from his runt or another weakling cow?

I grow ‘German Extra-Hardy’ (also called ‘German Stiffneck’) for its good performance here and big cloves. Otherwise, order bulbs now. Prepare a sunny spot, when the time comes, plant each clove about 2 inches deep (4 deep in the very coldest zones) and 6 inches apart in the row, with 8-12 inches between rows. Green growth will happen this fall, which is great; don’t panic. It’s a hardy thing. And remember: you get the biggest heads by keeping the garlic well-weeded and when you feed in spring, a lesson I learned by finally listening to myself.

  1. Tasha says:

    hi Margaret ,
    do you have tips on knowing when the garlic is done curing – tips to look for?
    sorry if I missed it from another post or in this article!
    thank you.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Tasha. If you have a spot with low humidity and about 80 degrees (the perfect situation, with good air circulation — even if you have to use fans) it would take about 2 weeks for the skins to feel papery. I often leave them a bit longer because our summers here are humid, typically, so it takes a bit longer. You’re not trying to dry the bulb, just to make sure the protective wrappers or skins and necks are dry.

  2. Shabnam says:

    Lovely looking Garlic! the way to store them for a long time(me Gramma used to do it) is to store them in airtight containers with all the airspace between bulbs filled with fresh ash(stuff you just took out of the grate – could be wood or coke, just very dry ash.

  3. Suzanne says:

    Just digging up my garlic now. Have been advised to do this because it has a lot of rust and is looking very unhappy. As I am digging up the bulbs they are also very soggy and some have rotted due to the huge amount of rain we have had recently. I’m worried that if I don’t get the soggy out layers they will rot even more. What do you think?

    1. margaret says:

      Sounds like the weather backfired on you, since of course the bulbs want to sort of dry off before the end of their time in the ground. Sorry. This happened to me one year, and since some of the bulbs wouldn’t cure well (and therefor wouldn’t store well) I peeled and froze those cloves, like this (but earlier than in that story). You’ll have to use your judgment when you get them lifted and sort them according to their condition. I assume you read this story on harvest/curing.

  4. Gay ayyagari says:

    Mother nature’s way of telling us the hard neck garlic is ready to be dug out of the ground–the scape points straight up. I always leave a couple of scapes on the garlic and watch for them to point up!

  5. Judy from Kansas says:

    I’ve had great success with garlic the last three years by following your advice, Margaret, but this year I am going to be away for the months of Sept. and Oct. Do you think I would be better off planting late August or wait till about Halloween? I’m in 5b like you, but we’ve had two record breaking years of heat and drought so I’m worried that August – without any watering – would be too hot for them.

  6. patsy olive says:

    Hi Margaret, this is my first time on planting garlic. Wish me luck, I live in Texas where it
    gets hot here in summer.

      1. Leaks says:

        I live in the Permian Basin area in Texasarea. Today I looked at my garden and every one of my garlic *leaves* were laid over like someone pushed them over. But that impossible. I live way out in the country and I have no children. Could it be the heat? Thank you!

        1. margaret says:

          If it all happened at once like that I would suspect it’s a water issue (combined with heat, which of course can dry things and generally add stress). Too dry (or too wet) soil can make any plants flop, especially when a hot spell coincides. Have you been watering consistently?

    1. Donna Schur says:

      I’m in Huntsville, Tx., and just pulled my crop up. They were much bigger this year! I have a raised bed on concrete and that has really helped with drainage after all the rain we’ve had and still getting.

  7. Megan says:

    Do you still cure the garlic if you are going to freeze it? Can you divide the garlic cloves before placing in freezee for easier use? Do you peel them prior to freezing? Thanks so much!

    1. margaret says:

      Many people consider fresh garlic — and even “green garlic,” pulled before in spring the heads really size up — as extra-delicious. It can be harder to peel before curing, and won’t store well if not cured first, but yes, good eating!

  8. Peter says:

    Wow! I do everything wrong. I plant in Sept. I dig the bulbs, hose off the dirt, dry them in the sun, braid them
    in braids of 6-8 and hang them in the garage from the ceiling on a rope. Never had a problem… yet. I must be growing soft neck because I get no scapes.
    Thank you. I learned a lot from the blog and will be back to visit.

      1. Peter Greene says:

        My biggest problem is knowing when to harvest. Here it is the end of June, the plants are 2-1/2 feet tall and still very green. I dug down and felt a couple of bulbs and they still seem small. Thanks again.

  9. Mike S. says:

    Hi Margaret, I live in little Rhode (Rhode Island). This is my first year growing garlic and I’ve enjoyed learning from your articles. I’ve been carefully watching my garlic and my daughter and I will be harvesting them today. Just wanted to thank you. Wish me luck on the curing process.

    1. margaret says:

      Hooray, Mike. This has been my first challenging year ever, since we had no proper winter and no snow cover, and also a crazy-mad population surge in voles (happens every so often, but oh my!). I am down a row or two from my original number planted, thanks to the tunneling devils, but the rest look good.

  10. TerryK says:

    Hi Margaret, this year I broke my wrist and have not been too attentive to the garden. I just got to harvest the garlic. Between the dry summer and late harvesting all the leaves were gone. It seems my hard neck garlic is very small bulbs and there is no outer skin. Should I let them cure a bit and freeze? Thanks for your help.

    1. Kathy A says:

      Same here as I left town for a few weeks and returned to totally brown and no leaves above. I harvested today and am curing but wondering what to do since the bulbs have no skins.

      1. margaret says:

        Hi, Kathy. Use them up in recipes you plan to freezer (like make all your tomato sauce or soups and include the garlic sooner than later). I freeze a portion of my whole peeled cloves like this, so if some isn’t going to keep beyond a month or two, maybe do that?

  11. john lever says:

    Hi Margaret

    I ordered some Elephant cloves For fall planting
    But they have not arrived as yet and the ground is starting to Frezee I do not think i well be able to pant them now.
    What are the best ways to save for Spring planting ?

  12. David says:

    Hi this is my first year of planting garlic . I planted in Sept and it is now almost march . I have 5 inch shoots. I was wondering when to start feeding and what and how much and often . I am in WA state by the coast . Any advice would be great Thank you

    1. margaret says:

      I feed once the shoots are growing and the ground is unfrozen (of course). So yes, good time now. You could use a balanced organic fertilizer, plus topdress with compost.

  13. Chris Kinney says:

    This is our first time growing garlic. We live in Washington state, (Centeral Washington) which is usually very dry and hot in the summer; but this year we have had a very wet spring. We planted elephant garlic last October. We have two plants that are about four feet tall and looks like they have a flower bud on top. None of the leaves have turned yellow, they’re all still green. Should we be digging them up?

    1. margaret says:

      Here’s the info on that. The basic answer is that the plant will tell you when it is ready, usually sometime in July-ish, when several of the lower leaves are brown but like 5 or 6 up above those are still green. You dig one bulb as a test, and make sure it’s ready before digging the whole bed.

  14. Trina says:

    So…we had a drought last fall, so I did not plant my garlic until early spring. They have come up nicely, but I just read they may not store well, because they did not get a winter in the ground? They did have some very cold storage before they got planted…(the room they were in was not insulated). I planted some of the Germand hardneck you mentioned and another hardneck…is all lost, or should I watch for scapes, freeze what we get and hope for the best? Also, will I be able to use any for seed?

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know, Trina; my friend Alley Swiss, an organic garlic farmer, told me that it is possible to get a good harvest from spring planting (you can scroll down in this Q&A to see his answer)…but that assumes the soil was good and the planting was very early spring and everything else cooperates. If you don’t get good-sized bulbs of good-sized cloves, then order some “seed garlic” from a supplier again and plant in fall, rather than risk using your own “seed” if it doesn’t develop fully. But since various parts of the plants are usable for something at various stages, it won’t be a total loss.

  15. Jerry McSilvers says:

    Your information was great! Wish I had read some of it sooner! Have 5 varieties–hard and softneck. Planted nearly 100 lbs of cloves (my wife’s ambitious!) and am going to harvest promptly. Hoping to market them here in Lane County, Oregon. Hopefully this will supplement income from our Hazelnut orchard as we are retired. Thanks again for being helpful!!!

  16. Eric says:

    I was wondering if there was a reason why the stems need to be attached for curing. We planneed on using wire racks. Any help is appreciated!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Eric. I can’t tell you the technical reason or scientific reason, I’m afraid, but it is the conventional way many growers I have spoken to do it. However, sources including UMass-Amherst Agriculture say you can cut them sooner. Again: I don’t know anyone first-hand who does it that way, so I can’t advise where to cut or when exactly. I do lay mine, stems and all, across large wire racks. I suppose perhaps that part of the wisdom on keeping the plant intact awhile longer, till it cures/heals is that you don’t want to introduce any places for more moisture to enter — any wound or scar. But that might just be incorrect! You could certainly experiment with a portion of your crop.

    2. Anna says:

      Hello Margaret,
      This year is my first time growing and harvesting garlic. I don’t know what type I have. I would attach a photo if I can.

      I planted last fall from garlic I bought from the farmers market.

      I harvested today and my garlic plants have fully bloomed seed heads. Is that too late? The plants still have one or two green leaves, but many, not so much. Should I still cure? What should I feed in the Spring ??

      Your blog has been very helpful. I just wish I read it a month ago!!

      Thanks you and happy harvests!!
      Anna

  17. MARLENE JOHNSON says:

    This is my first year growing garlic. I planted several varieties. I live in Vancouver, Washington and am starting to harvest my garlic . My question is after drying there still is a lot of dirt on the bulb so I took the very outer skin off , so I would have clean garlic. Is this OK? There is still skin left on the bulb but wasn’t sure what to do and if I did it right?

    1. margaret says:

      It’s desirable to leave the lower portion of at least 4 leaves — the bottom of each leaf forms a “bulb wrapper” — intact. So it you removed one or two you will be ok. But that’s the goal — four or more left intact.

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