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. Lauri says:

    Hi, I have something growing in my garden that I believe is garlic, however I did not plant it. I have read all of the advice given and really appreciate it ! My plant has a scape (approx. 3ft tall), but also has a round ball at the top that looks like it is going to flower. Is this garlic ? Should I have dug up the head already ? Not sure what to do, but have enjoyed watching it grow! HELP!

    1. margaret says:

      There are some “topset” Alliums, whether onions or garlic, so do a Google search for that term — and look up Egyptian walking onion, for example. Try e=searching through images till you find what you have.

    2. Claudine G. says:

      It is a leek if it is straight up and doesn’t curl. The ball is a flower that will produce the leek seed. Garlic will always curl to form a scape and bulbils when the scape opens.

  2. Nancy Ulmer says:

    We have planted elephant garlic for years. Plant in the fall, dig in July or August depending on weather.
    I have never frozen them. What is the point of that?

    1. margaret says:

      As mentioned, Nancy, I don’t have a proper climate controlled storage spot where I can keep my own garlic till the next year’s harvest, so I freeze the portion for use in cooking in the second half of the year (when it would have spoiled in conventional storage here).

      1. David Coldrick says:

        Our local garlic expert says freezing garlic is an excellent way to go. No need to peel the cloves, they’ll be easy to peel when they’re frozen. I have about 180 plants in currently: Spanish Roja, Dunganski, Ruby Ann, French EdenRose, Deerfield, Pepperton and Master Jack.

        Looking forward to harvest time! Letetia has good info on planting as well, in particular marinating the garlic cloves the day before planting. Lotsa good info on her website.

  3. rob says:

    Have just read the above information about garlic and have learned something about removing the scape heads to increase the bulb size thanks

  4. Mary Mihailoff says:

    Given good dry conditions and air circulation, about how long does it take to cure the garlic heads. I am zone 5b in Maine.

  5. Louise says:

    Hi, I have the hardneck type and I would like to know how to reseed for the next year if you cut the spades. I haven’t been cutting the spades as I wait until the flowers produce multiple seeds which I plant for the following year. I also would like to know if I should plant each seed individuaaly or to plant the entire bulb. Thank you.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Louise. You break apart the individual cloves of an actual underground mature bulb — one you’ve cured after harvest — and plant each clove. The little topset “seeds” take much longer to mature, so you won’t get big heads next year.

  6. jeaneen says:

    Hi, I planted garlic seeds in a raised bed fall of 2015.I planted 7 seeds,and got 7 perfectly round bulbs of garlic.I ate one,couldn’t wait, a little hot,but sooo good.I saved 3 bulbs in a lingerie bag hanging in my basement.Can I plant those bulbs in the fall for garlic come spring/summer 2017? Thanx for any info.

    1. margaret says:

      Yes, you replant cloves divided apart from the heads (the bulbs) of this year’s harvest for next year’s, usually replanting in October. Just be sure if you had heads of multiple cloves to separate the individual cloves to replant like this.

    2. Julie Martin says:

      Jeanine, I’m replying a year later so you might not need this but…When you plant from the little seeds it takes a few years to make big bulb heads. The first year or two you usually get that one big clove; I usually replant in the Fall and have a big bulb the next summer. Last year the softnecks I had planted from bulbils grew and the tops disappeared so I didn’t know exactly where they were so I just left them and this summer they made perfect big bulbs to harvest and I just braided them.

  7. Paulette says:

    Life happened and I have not yet harvested my garlic. Should I just dig it up so I have replanting stock? I understand what I harvest may not keep as long. I hate to think I lost everything (by the way I am in zone 6, eastern panhandle of West Virginia).

  8. Joe Christiansen says:

    I really like this blog post. Great info. I am new to garlic and have planted 4 different softneck varieties to see what grows best here in zone 8b. I planted in early October and boy did they sprout and grow. Now its mid December and they have slowed way down. My biggest worry is harvest time because the weather really fluctuates here and I may miss optimal time to harvest. Also, does any one know how to rid the garden of flea beetles? Small beetles the size of a large flake of pepper that feed on the chlorophyll in the onion and garlic stalks. They are a real pest here. Thanks, Joe

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Joe. I know about thrips and leaf miners on Allium (and lots of diseases that affect the bulb, too) …. and I know about flea beetles on other crops, but …. KI think the UIniv. of California Integtated Pest Management site is the best to try to click through all the Allium pests and diseases at see descriptions, photos, etc. It’s at this link.

    1. margaret says:

      There is no specific date, because each variety and season are different by days or a week, so you have to “read” the garlic leaves as the story explains, and harvest when a few lower leaves are brown but the upper one (like 5 or 6) are still green. Harvest one bulb and see if it’s ready — and details are in the story.

  9. Chuck says:

    I don’t follow anyof the rules and always have enough to last a year. I seed mine in the late summer to fall from the seed heads. I plant them all along the garden and along the house. They sprout later fall-winter and enough surive spring tilling so I have about 75 or so plants. That mature in June. I pull the plants st8 up during dry weather. I rinse the bulbs in a bucket and lay the plants on the side walk to dry. In a couple days I cut off the stems and pack bulbs loosely in wire baskets to finish drying. The July harvest lasts to early June when I’m already using fresh and ramps.

  10. Pat Deuel says:

    6a Just dug up the first garlic bulb of my above ground harvest. I have hardneck garlic and they did not have any scapes. Also have had a very wet spring (last two months) and I am concerned about them rotting in the ground. The one I took up is fine. Same size as what I planted (dumb question 1, will they grow bigger than the head you plant) 2. Many of the leaves are all still green with a few turning brown. Should I just dig the brown ones or all. I saw where leaving them in too long loosens the cloves and does not make them larger. What fertilizer do I use and when. Thanks, great blog.

  11. thebewilderness says:

    Thanks for this! Every year I puzzle over the best time to harvest the garlic. Should I cut the blooms or does it matter. Easiest to grow plant ever and I still manage to fuss over it.

  12. Calvin says:

    I’m a beginner, only my third year growing garlic, I also muse about how to harvest. I ask, get differing opinion, then muse again. As each bottom leaf goes brown, that’s another layer of the shell around the garlic bulb. How many layers can we lose before we are pushing the limit I don’t know, I figure 3 or 4 tops? Also, the stem going brown is a sign that it is ready, someone also told me when the stem is bendy and no longer firm that your heading past harvest. I’m harvesting a little early this year due to some hotter periods, and lots of wet, I started harvesting yesterday and I’m in WI zone 4b bordering 5a. I harvested maybe 1/6th of my total crop and with about 2 bottom leaves completely brown I suspect I’m about a week early on harvest. I also have this rust staining on my bulbs, I still don’t know what that is. One had something appearing to be black moldy and I could see the white fungus growing quite well around it when I pulled it out of the ground.

  13. Bob says:

    Hello. I tried garlic for the first time (zone 6), planting in the fall and harvesting started today. All of the bulbs are small, some no bigger than the size of one clove. I fertilized well when I planted with compost and manure, and cut the scapes off about a month ago. The bulbs seem tight and healthy, just small. The stalks seemed nice and healthy as well. Any idea what I did wrong?

    1. margaret says:

      Poorly drained or wet soil or compacted soil can affect the plants negatively. Competition from weeds can also. Not enough sun is another possible issue, as is too-close planting (I like to space mine 8 inches apart approximately; I doubt you put closer but just mentioning that in case). Starting with runt-sized cloves can affect the size of the finished heads, I think — I usually eat the small cloves and save the largest for use as my “seed” to plant. Growing a variety not suited for your region I expect can also be an issue, but I do not know where you live. I suggest preferably this fall before replanting you do a soil test (full nutrient analysis) to send to your nearest lab and see what might be up nutrient-wise.

  14. Edna says:

    I planted hardneck garlic for the first time this Oct. It is up & growing. Do you just leave it in the ground & harvest it next summer?

  15. Tina says:

    We have Wild Elephant Garlic that has been growing in a corner of our pasture for many many years. I didn’t even realize it was there until 4 or 5 years ago. I usually harvest it around the 1st or 2nd week of June. Here’s my question; We’ve had unusually HOT weather here in Central Texas. The Scapes on the garlic came up about 3 weeks ago. I have 4 donkeys who never touched my garlic until the last 2 years. Now they chew off the top of the stock and in doing so, pull up the garlic and leave it lying on the ground, sometimes destroying the plant. I know the smart thing to do is put a fence around that area, but it’s too big of an area and too jagged of a terrain. Can I harvest it now before the donkeys destroy it? I am hoping it’s ok since the Scapes have been up for about 3 weeks.

    1. margaret says:

      Ouch, Tina, sorry about that. The bulbs aren’t ready till the plant tells you so (till some of the leaves have faded as explained in the story)…so the question is are the bulbs fully developed yet (I bet you can tell from the uprooted ones), and are the “wrappers” in place from those faded leaves? Garlic is edible at any stage, even before the bulbs fully form, but immature garlic won’t store well for the fall/winter and will need to be used sooner.

  16. Peter and Maureen Leggieri says:

    Margaret, because of the recent heat wave in our area of Columbia County, NY, have you harvested your garlic yet?

    1. margaret says:

      I have not done so– none of the leaves have browned down yet, presumably b/c it was relatively cool and a slow season before last week. I will wait till the plants tell me, when some of the foliage has ripened…I bet it will be another two weeks or so.

  17. Matt says:

    Southeastern Mass. Just harvested some NH hard neck to test as the lower leaves have browned. Still think I may be a week or so early. Not going to waste however as they still are tasty. I think a bit more time in the ground will be better for longer storage for the winter.

    1. margaret says:

      I usually dig a few test heads and wait to do the rest if the first ones aren’t quite there yet. But like you say: nothing goes to waste! : )

  18. Carol K. says:

    Not expecting you to publish this, as my post is meant only for you.
    I’ve just read through all of the above comments, and have to say, Margaret, that you have incredible patience! As I read through the questions, I really had to wonder if most people bothered (1) actually to read your article and (2) read the previous posts — to which you had replied and answered the question asked (more than once) and even re-posted the link – TWICE – to “all one needs to know about growing garlic.”
    I’m a “retired” Penn State Master Gardener now living in Ohio so still do all the MG type stuff but without being affiliated – i.e. give gardening & nature programs to adults, maintain demonstration gardens at the Senior Center, county library, and an herb garden adjacent to a cabin belonging to the local historical society, and even do a brief radio spot/podcast every other week for a tiny local station. As such, I get a lot of repetitive questions from the public, so I admire your restraint in dealing with the questions you receive!
    I was hoping when we retired & moved here to get paid a little for my presentations (which of course I could not accept as a master gardener, which was fine), but few of the church groups or other clubs that ask me to speak offer any stipend – so of course I do it anyway. :-) Now & then I get lucky & pick up a few bucks that I turn back into the community via the gardens I maintain. I love sharing my knowledge with others, just as you obviously do in a wonderful way and I look forward to receiving each A Way to Garden newsletter.
    Thanks a million for your podcast/interviews/website. Great info, great stuff!

  19. Ann says:

    I cut our scapes about a week ago and I checked all the bulbs and instead of one big one, I found 5-6! They were okay size for us but they didn’t have the paper yet. I popped them all back in and gave them all their own location so now I have quite a big bed full. I’m going to wait until I see all the green gone on the leaves.

  20. Bill says:

    I had learned that another method to cure my hardneck garlic instead of hanging them by the uncut leaves was to cut the leaves off leaving about a two to three inch stem and placing the bulbs on wire racks in a well ventilated room with controlled humidity. How does this compare with other methods? Thanks much.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Bill. I always let the leave wither intact on the stems, and let the garlic dry down and cure before removing them. That’s how my various organic garlic-farmer friends taught me to do it.

  21. Claudine G. says:

    Also, your article says that you store your garlic in a cold, dark place. Garlic will sprout in cold temperatures and more rapidly if it is colder than room temperature. That is why you should never put your garlic in fridges or a cold room. You should be storing it at room temperature with lots of air circulation which greatly helps the garlic from sprouting and keeps it’s shelf life lasting much longer. You should hang them in something like a mesh bag to promote circulation so that your garlic doesn’t mold if they are hardnecks, braided if they are softnecks.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Claudine. Ideal storage for garlic is between 40-55 degrees with 60-70 percent humidity. If it is too humid, says Alley Swiss, the farmer at Filaree Farm (the largest organic garlic collection in the country and a longtime garlic specialist) you might have problems with mold, and very dry air will dehydrate garlic quicker. The fridge is no good; too moist. He recommends a root cellar, basement or garage as the best options, but even a cupboard in a cool area of the house will work fine.

  22. Misyel says:

    This site is very helpful. I have planted a few cloves before in a 2×3 bed had it going for maybe be 3 years. I didn’t know what I was doing then and lost intrest so i decided to kill the patch and replaced it with flowers. Now I’m back to it after I received 16 varieties for my b day last fall. It’s been growing all winter long and I can’t wait to see how we did when they are ready for harvest

  23. Dianne says:

    Oh Margaret, thank you for this. I have been growing garlic for a while now but need to sit down and review all this because I’m old now and surely have forgotten some of your tips. Here in 7b I harvested my garlic yesterday. I planted softneck this year and my niece wants to try her hand at braiding. So we have a project in store. Is it true that all hardneck has scapes? I had planted ‘Music’ for several years which is supposed to be hardneck but was disappointed that I never got any scapes. I really do prefer the big cloves to all those little ones in the center, but someone gave me several heads of garlic from her daughter’s farm in California that were lovely and I decided to plant them instead of cooking use. I didn’t know at the time the variety. I hope to find a variety that will be reliable for scapes. Hmmm. Again, thanks for the info.

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