I 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.
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.