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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 my Northeast garden in late July. Above, those are a few plants 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 sound 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.

hardneck garlic growing in raised bedshow 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 “seed garlic” or 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).

the garlic stories

  1. Keith Hogue says:

    Should one cut off the scapes a few weeks before harvest….and is the best harvest time when 2 or 3 bottom leaves are brown and 5 to 6 top leaves green…plus can you use scapes as seed for following year,….if so how deep in soil ??? Thanks for info..

    1. margaret says:

      Yes, I havrest (and eat) the scapes when they form. The scapes wouldn’t have viable reproductive material in them when first fully forming and tender (when I harvest them for eating) but I suppose if left in place they might form little bulbils (not seed exactly but …) that could be sown…but would take a long time (two years maybe?) to make garlic that formed bulbs.

      1. Jennifer says:

        I had an interesting experience where I had some scapes in my kitchen I never got around to eating. Once they had fully dried, the flowers “bloomed” exposing these little tiny bulbs. Bulbils that you mentioned above maybe? They looked like flowers but weren’t exactly flower petals. They were like miniature cloves and delicious on pasta. Is my first year growing so thank you on the harvesting advice!

        1. Jianhua says:

          These full grown bulbils harvested in late July can be planted on mid October, exactly the same as planting clove. It take much less space, in other words, much sense and can save cloves to use as seeds. By next July dig these out the size of a quarter, rap in the paper and replant in October, again all the same time frame, this will grow as a full bulb in the July second year. I live in western Minnesota have both clove and bulbils growing.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Carol. I haven’t heard that advice, and not all mine get the same degree/length of scape consistently. I usually cut when it has made a circle and a little bit, but before the scape gets tough.

  2. Andrea says:

    My garlics are a hardneck variety, left in the garden overwinter to seed (my sister gave me some shoots last spring and they fully died back before I could harvest them). While they were the first thing to grow in the spring, they did not produce any scapes except one whose stalk did not fully emerge before the flower opened from the center of the plant. My sister’s garlics have scapes, so it’s not a matter of them being a softneck variety. What am I doing wrong? Thanks!

  3. Megan says:

    This was my first year successfully growing garlic and I missed the right harvesting time. All the leaves were brown so now I’m left with cloves of garlic without any protective covering! Is there anything I can do to save them or have I ruined my harvest? I’m more than a little heartbroken.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Megan. I freeze half my harvest as whole cloves (since even perfectly cured ones won’t store in my house till next years crop is ready) to use in spring and summer next year. Like this. Plus around now I make all my tomato sauce and various soups with fresh produce to freeze for offseason use…and some of my garlic crop goes into those.

    2. IAN BAILEY says:

      I couldn’t resist.
      On a more serious note, although I’ve been living in France for over 35 years, I’m only just growing my own garlic for the first time this year. I discovered Margaret’s very interesting gardening blog while I was wondering when I should harvest my autumn-planted garlic. I’m delighted and will of course subscribe. Many thanks.

  4. Mary Tielve says:

    Hello! Totally new to growing anything but decided last October to plant cloves from this really great local garlic I bought. As I hadn’t yet found your very informative site I harvested my garlic as 2 levels of the lower leaves were brown. Well the garlic looks like large scallions so I’ll take a minor leap here and say I harvested way too soon. For the future in Zone 6 should I have waited until late July, early August?

    1. margaret says:

      Yes approximately — each year is a little different, and each area of the country a little different, but that’s about right: July or August.

  5. Linda Brodie says:

    Im in zone 4b and have been growing hardneck garlics for several years. I harvest the scapes once they’ve completed a full circle, and the garlic bulbs are ready to lift 4-5 weeks later…once 1/3 of the leaves are brown. Once they turn brown, they wither so check at ground level.

  6. Trish says:

    Help! We are newbies planting garlic and harvested last night after cutting off the scapes a few days ago.
    The bulbs are really small–and I now see that we harvested too early.
    They are hanging in the shed less than 2 hours.
    Is it possible to replant them to grow more ;( ??

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t think so, Trish; once uprooted I suspect they wouldn’t settle back in — but I have never tried it. They are edible — the cloves, if they have formed — but will not store well since they are not fully developed.

  7. Nicole says:

    Hi! I was shocked to find that my (supposed unsuccessful) garlic from last year came back strong this year . It was the first thing to sprout, and it has grown tall. (Zone 6) . Now my stalks are all leaning over. Should I harvest and cure it now? Or shall I wait until July? Love your blog!

  8. Gene Purdum says:

    We have been reseeding the same Music Pink variety hardneck for 23 years in our garden. We clip all the garlic scapes except one. When that scape becomes upright and stiff, it’s our sign to dig up the other garlics.

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