How to Harvest & Cure Garlic (Plus Save Some for Seed!)
Most of us eat garlic on a regular basis, but few realize how easy it is to grow this crucial ingredient of world cuisine. While growing garlic requires patience and some planning, the results are well worth the effort—and the crop can perpetuate itself for many years to come (we’ll explain later). For those that had the foresight to plant this culinary essential last fall, the long wait is over! It’s time to dig and cure your garlic, if you haven’t already.
When to Harvest
The ideal time to harvest garlic is when the lower 1/3 to ½ of the leaves have begun to “dry down”, or turn brown and papery. This signals that the plant has completed its life cycle and that the cloves have grown to full size. Leaving garlic in the ground after this point makes it more susceptible to disease, which in turn can shorten its shelf life. Not to worry, though—if your plants are all brown, just harvest them as soon as possible and discard any heads that are moldy or soft. If you planted different varieties, you’ll notice that they mature at different times. Just check them regularly and harvest each variety once half or more of its leaves are dried down.
Harvest on a dry day by loosening the soil around the garlic plants with a garden fork, then gently pulling up the garlic by the neck. Go slowly, being careful not to pierce the heads with the fork, since punctured or bruised heads will not store well. You will need to loosen the soil more and be very gentle when harvesting softneck varieties, as the neck is much weaker and more likely to break.
Proper curing of garlic is essential to long storage because, much like onions, this is when their skins become dry and papery, forming a protective barrier against moisture and mold. Curing should take place in a cool, airy place protected from sun and rain – an open barn, garage, shed, shaded greenhouse or under a covered porch all work well. It’s important to keep the garlic out of direct sunlight because hot sun can actually cook it at this stage.
Next, you can either lay the garlic out on pallets or wire mesh, or hang it up to dry. If hanging your garlic, make bundles of 10-12 plants, make a loop in one end of a piece of twine, and slip the other end of the twine through it to form a noose that holds the garlic bundle securely even as the stems dry down and shrink. Don’t worry about the dirt left on the heads, as it will dry completely and be easy to brush off later.
Softneck garlic can be braided for curing and storage. Just remove the scraggly lower leaves, then carefully French braid the tops so that the heads are held securely in the braid. The key is to braid before the stems are completely dry, while they’re still flexible, and to do it on a soft surface (like your lap) to avoid bruising the heads.
Once your garlic is hanging or laid out to dry, leave it in place for about two weeks. The skins should be fully dry and slightly wrinkled by the end, and the roots dry and wiry. For hardnecks, trim the roots close to the head and lop the stems off about 1” above the head, brushing off any remaining dirt as you go. For braided softnecks, just trim the roots.
Garlic must either be stored at very low temperatures right around freezing, or at room temperature (between 60-70 degrees) with low humidity. Do not keep garlic in the refrigerator as this will cause it to start actively growing again. Garlic should also be stored so that it has plenty of air circulating around it—hanging mesh bags, baskets or braids are all good methods for keeping garlic for long storage. Just remember that hardnecks won’t store as long as softnecks – about 3-6 months, versus 9-12 for softnecks – so eat these first.
Re-Planting the Harvest for Next Year’s Crop
One of the best things about garlic is that it has built-in seed saving potential, since each clove planted turns into a head of garlic. Once your garlic is cured, you can select large, healthy heads for planting in the fall (usually in October, before the ground freezes) for next year’s crop. Keep in mind that larger heads tend to have fewer cloves, so you’ll need more of them to plant next year’s crop (which will in turn produce larger heads with fewer cloves). If you want to stretch your seed garlic further, choose heads that have more individual cloves. Break up the heads just before planting for best results, and plant individual cloves 2” deep with the pointy end up, spacing them about 6-8” apart in rows 6” apart. Garlic prefers loose, deep, fertile soil and can benefit from a thick straw mulch in cold climates.
Excited about growing garlic? Check out our 4 new varieties available for Fall 2015!