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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. judi says:

    Such great information…I am learning all the time. I just recieved my order of garlic to plant. Last year I planted in the spring with the rest of the garden…..let’s just write that off as a mistake and forget about it…..Oh and did I mention I have garlic loving squirrels in my garden. So now they go into the enclosed and electric fences garden. Here hoping for a vampire free next summer…thanks for the info.

  2. Bonny says:

    My favorite way to freeze less than perfect garlic is to chop it in the food processor, with a small amount of oil and salt. Put it in a small zip loc freezer bag, smash all of the air out, put it in another bag and freeze flat, maybe 1/4 inch thick. That way I can break off whatever size chunks I need. It will keep over a year this way.

  3. Beth says:

    So are you saying it’s ok to chop garlic, add chopped fresh basil and olive oil, and freeze in ice cube trays then transfer to a freezer bag?
    Love your blog!

  4. lin says:

    Thanks. Very good ideas on your blog. I pulled apart cloves and planted then root down. Once they had been covered with dirt, I covered them with straw. Hope the animals don’t get after them. I may have made a mistake as I dried my garlic in August; then I put in mesh bag and hung off a shelf in my dark storage room. But it is only (at the least) 62 degrees there. I don’t know anything about making a log and freezing it. Sounds like the best way for me.

    1. margaret says:

      I bet it will all be fine, Lin. Mine has sat in my barn curing since August, too, and I will plant the cloves I want for next year’s harvest this week, then store the rest inside in a cool spot.

  5. Diane says:

    My daughter had a baby and forgot her 5 gal bucket of garlic in the garage and it froze solid. Is there any way to make use of it? Any ideas would be appreciated.

    1. margaret says:

      If it had simply gone from fresh to frozen solid, no risk of freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw and maybe decay in the process, I’d keep it frozen put putting heads into my freezer in bags (assuming you could get the heads out of the bucket!) and use it gradually after that for cooking. Some people do freeze their cloves without peeling (I peel first). But it sounds as if it’s one giant 5-gallon mass…which you could maybe peel and make a vat of garlic soup out of, but I never like using ingredients that weren’t frozen in a safe and sustained manner, not to mention that they deteriorate flavor- and texture-wise even if they did prove safe.

  6. David says:

    Last year was my first to grow any significant amount of garlic. Everything went well including following your directions for harvesting and drying the bulbs. Dry storage went well also by placing bulbs in onion bags and storing in a fairly dark and dry area of my pantry. I ran into real problems when I segregated the cloves (did not peel totally) freezing them on a cookie sheet to prevent sticking together and then freezing them in foodsaver vacuum packs.
    Everything seemed fine until I thawed them to find they had pretty much turned internally to dark yellow mushiness and little flavor ?
    Any thoughts ???

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know if you froze them when they were recently harvested and cured, or more recently. Unless they are in a very cool spot before using or freezing, they can deteriorate, which then if frozen might add to the trouble. The best results from freezing are pretty close to just after curing. As mentioned I peel, then toss lightly in olive oil, then freeze in bags or jars. In bags it’s easy to break off a clove or two to add to a recipe.

      Also: I don’t thaw mine but use them whole in recipes, as I expect they would get mushy if thawed as you describe. Friends chop their fresh cloves first, mix with a tiny bit of oil, and freeze in logs, if it’s chopped garlic they are after for recipes later.

  7. Teresa Montgomery says:

    My garlic garden started last fall on a full moon in October. The month before I had visited my local very organic farmers market up in the Blue Ridge. This man had several varieties. I bought 5 types and am waiting to harvest. I used a wooden box and covered it with straw all winter. When I go to harvest I am removing the box and hopefully they will be perfect. Good to know about the leaf count. Thanks.

    1. margaret says:

      I’ve never grown it in a container (you mention a box?), Teresa. Will be interesting to hear how it does!

  8. Cindy French says:

    Thanks for the information! I like to roast my garlic and then squeeze it out of the peelings into small bags or jars and freeze. It’s easy to use at any time.

  9. Terry says:

    I received some garlic from an old friend (now deceased)about ten or eleven years ago. I had my moments over the years with not harvesting soon enough, and not curing it properly, but I haven’t bought a head of garlic since. Thank you Wendell! I do all of the above except freezing, and will try that. Thanks for passing on the info!

  10. JoAnne says:

    Thanks for the information on freezing garlic. I’ve always dry stored it and it doesn’t last a year. I think I’ll try making a garlic log. We harvest in June usually in Kentucky.

  11. Roo says:

    I read that all of the garlic plant is edible. Someone suggested making a garlic vinegar using the green leaves which are cut off when I harvest the bulbs. (not talking about the scapes) Most of the recipes I found on-line use the cloves. Anybody try making garlic vinegar with the leaves?

  12. Lynn says:

    I discovered your site yesterday exploring how to store garlic and find it helpful, even as we live at opposite corners of the country. Since you say your garlic lasts you until February, the rest in the freezer, I’m wondering how you store your sets you will plant again in October? I do not have a root cellar, yet, and the barn is just too hot in the summer so I’m looking for options. The fridge? Or do you not keep them at the optimum temp you would for eating?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lynn. I harvest in late July-ish; I first cure them (out of direct sun, but in a warm–like 80F degree–spot that’s not dank, for two or three weeks). So by then we are already into August, and I just put them somewhere dry and neither baking nor too cold, and not damp, to use for replanting in October, so like in my mudroom or pantry even.

    2. Mollie says:

      I store mine over winter in a wicker basket in the bulkhead, with closed cell foam “boards” over the top of the concrete stairs to keep from freezing. Stays around 40-45 except on exceptionally cold nights when I bring it into the cellar. I separate the largest heads to replant in October.

  13. Sara says:

    I admit I’ve never thought to freeze garlic before, but I definitely will be this year! It’s so hot where I live in AZ that I don’t have a cool location to store garlic for very long, so I end up eating all of it or giving away what I can’t use before it goes bad, and then I don’t have garlic to last the whole year.

    Could you possibly post a link of what jars you use that are freezer safe? I always reuse my honey, pasta sauce, jelly etc. jars for storage, but I’ve had about 50/50 luck with using old jars to store sauces in the freezer. Half of them have no problem, but the other half crack and break when frozen. Thank you!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sara. Any straight-sided canning jar (whether Ball, Weck, Mason…) will do. For larger portions (pint and above), being straight-sided will mean having a wide-mouth opening, using the larger seal and lid size. With the jars that are not straight-sided, and have “shoulders” and a narrower neck, the liquid will push up against that as it freezes and expands, so to use those you have to leave lots of “headspace” for the expansion.

      I just use plain old jars like this (or the smaller straight sided half-pint for smaller portions).

  14. Cheryl says:

    I’m harvesting less than two dozen bulbs June -July and we eat it all well before winter is over! I plant garlic I buy at organic food stores.

    1. CherylS. says:

      Hello, Cheryl: I attended a garlic garden workshop earlier this spring, and the lecturer strongly recommended against planting garlic from the food stores, even if it is organic. Rather, she recommended purchasing only from certified clean garlic seed farms (Filaree’s or others). She said that, unless you know and research the source of the garlic in the food store and their fields (which we often don’t), then you have no guarantee that the cloves and heads will be free from garden viruses or other problems that you will unwittingly pass along to your garden soil. You will definitely want to keep those critters out of your soil as it can render it useless for some time after it is infected. Best wishes!

  15. Kelly says:

    This is my first attempt at growing garlic. My only problem occurred while drying. When I harvested the garlic the heads were not split, but as they dried some split open. Are they still okay to eat? How can I prevent them from doing this?

    1. margaret says:

      Definitely fine to eat, but be aware they will not store as well or long as tighter-wrapped heads, so use them first.

  16. Rebecca says:

    I received some fresh organically grown garlic on Friday. Because of weekend plans, I placed it in a resealable bag and placed it in the refrigerator. I usually either chop and freeze it or dehydrate it. this is Monday and I was just about to dehydrate it. But I thought I might check for other ways to store it. After reading several blogs, I have concerns about botulism with the garlic being stored now for 3 days in my frig. Should I toss it?

  17. Thomas broohy says:

    May it be assumed that this does not apply to roasted garlic stored in some olive oil in the fridge because the potentially harmful bacteria are killed off?

    1. margaret says:

      Actually, Thomas, that’s very dangerous, says the National Center for Home Food Preservation at University of Georgia. Cooked or raw and placed in oil, it shoudl not be kept more than 4 days (and always in the fridge, not room temperature) and if youw ant to go longer than that, best to freeze it. Here is the info.

  18. Mike says:

    this is my second season of growing garlic that started with two bulbs from the store two years before. I read an article similar to yours that talked about storing in the freezer for long term storage. I cure the bulbs by hanging for two weeks or so. Then I keep the largest bulb to replant next year’s crop. The others I break down into individual cloves, lightly coat with olive oil then freeze them in small canning jars I purchased. When I need some I just take out the number of cloves I need, run them under cool water for a few seconds, they defrost like magic and taste like I just picked them. Just harvested this year’s and I think I will have enough to last through the year this time. Thanks for the great article. No vampires at this house.

  19. Teresa Cooper says:

    Ok I had a chance to buy a rack of bulbs garlic , onions, potatoes, how do I keep them to plant in February

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Teresa. Not sure where you are located that you would plant in February? Southern Hemisphere? More info please.

  20. Patti J McDaniel says:

    Garlic comes up volunteer in my garden. There were at least 50 or more plants just from small bulblets that fell to the ground. I dug and threw away most of it, but still had at least 25 large ones left.

    1. margaret says:

      Interesting, Patti. I get lots of volunteers from other Allium, the ornamental kinds, but because I grow hard-neck garlic and harvest the scapes to eat (which would make the flower and seed) I don’t get any self-sowns.

  21. Christa says:

    Generally, I save my biggest cloves to plant, but plan on starting fresh, purchasing garlic this year. Thanks for the reminder that now’s the time!

    1. margaret says:

      No, don’t freeze them; just cure them and store them out of light/too much heat/dampness and then separate the cloves and plant in fall.

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