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growing and storing a year of garlic

garlic with press 2MY HOMEGROWN CROP OF GARLIC gets me to almost February, and then it’s just not what it used to be. You know how it goes—you’ve bought late-winter cloves that start to sprout and just don’t feel as firm or weigh what they did before time took its toll. I don’t have a perfect storage spot; considering that, I do quite well.

But these days I lay in a supply in the freezer, too, following safe, sane methods—no, you cannot just pack it in oil and refrigerate! My tactics for growing, harvesting and enjoying a year of garlic. Both softneck and hardneck types are welcome here, by the way—dare I ask which camp you’re in?

Like any bulb, garlic is a little particular about above-ground storage conditions. Once it’s fully cured, commercially grown garlic is stored in the dark at about 32 degrees and 65 percent humidity, and depending on the species and variety, may last six months or even longer. (The ideal range often recommended for garlic storage is cool and dry, from 32-50 and 60-70 percent humidity.)

My very primitive basement—an old stone foundation, no heat except what’s given off by the furnace—is a bit too warm and can be damp, but I have tried hanging the garlic heads in mesh bags from the rafters (as I have with onions). Even better, though, is a barely heated room above my garage, which stays around 40. Don’t put all your harvest in one spot if you’re not sure how it will fare; experiment with your two or three best possible spots.

cloves of garlic to freeze

into the deep freeze

IN RECENT YEARS I’VE FROZEN a portion of my harvest, trying a few methods gathered from university extension services and my collection of preserving books. Important note:

Even at below 40 degrees, such as in the refrigerator, you run the risk of harmful bacteria forming after about a week, including spores of Clostridium botulinum, the cause of botulism. Oil-packed peeled garlic sold in the market contains a preservative, such as citric acid. Achieving safe preservation this way is best left to commercial packers.

(Ditto with your oil-packed sun- or oven-dried tomatoes—something I shudder when I think I did for many years. Better to dry the tomatoes, pack them crisp in airtight bags, then soften a week’s worth at a time in oil before using. Herb-infused oils, particularly those with garlic, run the same risk.)

The trouble: bacteria can form in water droplets trapped within the oil, says the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Plus garlic is a low-acid food (therefore more prone to bacteria formation), and the low-oxygen conditions that bacteria loves are ideal thanks to the oil packing. A perfect storm.

  • Whole, unpeeled cloves can be frozen as-is at harvest time, then thawed and used as needed. But I prefer to peel each batch, toss them lightly in oil and freeze them in bags or jars (above). I don’t thaw my whole cloves before cooking with them, but roast or slowly saute them, or drop them into things like soups then locate and kind of mash them against the side of the pot with a fork or back of a spoon once they soften.
  • Some people prefer the convenience of making a log or small brick of chopped garlic—not unlike my parsley logs—and slicing off just what is needed for a recipe.
  • Likewise, a puree of garlic and olive oil can be frozen like my other pestos, in cubes or small containers. (The University of California at Davis recommends 1 part garlic to 2 parts oil, for a sauté mixture that remains safely frozen but is soft enough to scrape the needed amount off at any time.)
  • With all freezer methods, freeze immediately after preparation; do not refrigerate or store at room temperature even briefly first.
  • Sometimes in midwinter, if I see that I have too much garlic and onions still in storage and worry they won’t last, I freeze them in bags or jars, as whole unpeeled cloves, this way.
  • A pdf of other ways to safely preserve garlic, including drying, from University of California.

the cultivation of allium sativum

GARLIC COULDN’T BE EASIER TO GROW: Plant like any bulb in fall, a few weeks before frost is in the ground; topdress with organic fertilizer when shoots start really growing in spring; keep it well-watered during active growth; weed well. The details:

'German Extra Hardy' has few cloves, each very large

hardneck versus softneck: which to grow?

SOFTNECK GARLIC (Allium sativum), the 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 (shown above), which also has the bonus of producing scapes (flower stalks that you cut off and eat before bloom) in early June or thereabouts.

My reason:  Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) is better-adapted to Northern winters (its long roots–or at least before I trimmed them after curing–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.

time to order: garlic sources

OCTOBER IS PLANTING TIME in my Zone 5B, late in the month, since about a month before frost is in the ground is perfect timing. Order early, though, for best selection. Eventually, if all goes well, you’ll achieve garlic independence (where you have enough heads for eating and to supply your own “seed” cloves). Some sources of organic “seed” garlic, meaning bulbs to divide up into cloves for planting.

  1. Carol says:

    I just picked out some garlic at the grocery store and planted it. What is the difference between that and ordering it? I harvested and it is great

    1. margaret says:

      First, grocery-store garlic may have been sprayed with something to retard sprouting for long shelf life, which it sounds like yours wasn’t. Second, you probably don’t know the variety (or whether it was organically grown). So it can be a crapshoot — but it sounds as if you won!

  2. Anita says:

    Early winter here, didnt get any planted in the ground. Ever plant inside? Thinking about planting in pots in unheated garage as experiment. Is spring planting an option? Have some I didnt harvest, I plant it randomly in flower beds. Ever pick 2nd year? Love garlic, no great planting succes3yet tho. Thank u!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Anita. Is the ground really, really frozen or ??? (I would be tempted to try to get it into the ground if I could, but …). If pots I would think really, really big pots — for the insulation factor (even big pots are always like a zone colder or so than in the ground).

  3. Mark says:

    How do you store garlic for replanting the next year’s Autumn?

    I guess this means how do I harvest, overwinter, then replant the following Fall?

    I’ve missed so much and many are still in the ground, each clove sprouting to make a new plant…

    1. margaret says:

      Hi Mark. It isn’t typically stored for a year then replanted, because the cloves that form each head will dry out, start to sprout or otherwise lose vigor in storage that long (I am assuming you mean it would be out of the ground more than a year). Rather the recently harvested bulbs are cured for just a couple of months until planting time (so harvested around July and planted around October or November).

      I’m not clear if you are saying that you missed harvesting the 2019 crop and it’s still in the ground, and sprouting? Some people (including some permaculturists) grow it as a perennial (which it is if left to its own devices, not cultivated by us) and don’t harvest expect wheat they wish to use in cooking, and only after the bed really builds up first. I tried to find a resource for you to read about that and could only find this blog post.

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