It has been an upside-down summer for the garlic in terms of weather. Let's talk about when to harvest garlic—and what to look for before harvesting. Plus, I'll show you how to cure your garlic for long-term storage.
To grow the best bulbs, you want rain early in the season. Unfortunately, where I live, it was hot and dry in June then cool and wet, wet, wet in July. As harvest time approaches, the need for moisture decreases. If the soil is too wet, the papery outer wrappers can become moldy and stained and the bulbs can be attacked by fungal diseases, Bulbs can split open and even rot. Growers who irrigate their fields stop watering 2 to 3 weeks before harvest but there is no off switch for rain.
When to Harvest
If you ask ten garlic growers for their advice as to when the garlic should be harvested you will probably get ten different answers. Through trial and error, this is what has worked for me and my partner, Tom.
Tom was glad to get the garlic out of the ground before it rained again.
By the time 1/4 of the leaves have started to turn brown, the bulbs should have grown to a good size. Hardneck garlic—the kind we grow—should be ready to harvest when 40% of the leaves are brown and 60% are still green. Softnecks can stay in the ground longer but can start to be harvested while they still have 5 green leaves.
The garlic witch says that when the scapes uncurl and stand up straight, harvest time is near. The leaves are also starting to die back.
We also employ the "garlic witch" method of leaving one or two scapes (flower stalks) of each variety on the plants as indicators. When they uncurl and stand up straight, the garlic is ready to harvest.
Getting your garlic out of the ground at the right time is imperative if you want high quality bulbs that will store well. Over-mature bulbs will start to split open.
Normally we would never lay the bulbs in the greenhouse to dry but this year has not been normal. It was just for a few days.
Since we had a tiny window of opportunity between rainstorms to pull the garlic, we laid the plants out on the wire benches in the greenhouse for a day or two to dry before bundling them, something we normally would not do. When it wasn't cloudy and rainy, smoke from western wildfires obscured the sun and there is shade cloth on the greenhouse so we weren't concerned about the bulbs overheating or getting sunburnt.
How to Harvest Garlic
Harvest when the soil is dry. Do not yank out the plant by the leaves! The stem will break. The goal is to disturb the soil as little as possible. Some folks recommend using a shovel or fork to pull up the bulb. I just put my finger and put it right down near the stem, and just peel the soil back a little bit to reveal the garlic bulb. Scoop the soil away. Carefully get your hand or a couple fingers around the bulb, and gently pull out the bulb.
You can always harvest one garlic bulb as a test and see if the crop is ready. If not, wait a week or longer and try again! Also, you can harvest the leaves during the season; garlic scapes are edible. They can be chopped up for salads or soups or even juiced for a nice garlic flavor in your juices. Just don't harvest too many leaves before harvesting the bulbs—harvest a scape here and there.
Good air circulation is critical for proper curing. The bulbs also need protection from direct sun. We hang ours in our shady screened porch after they are bundled and labeled. We cherry pick the best and biggest bulbs to replant and bundle the rest for sale. Any that don't make the cut size-wise or quality-wise, we keep to eat.
An airy shady porch protected from rain has worked well for us as a garlic drying spot.
We never wash the bulbs and we don't cut the tops or trim the roots until they have dried and cured for at least 2 weeks, 3 to 4 weeks is even better. Then we brush off the dried dirt, clip the roots and trim the tops to pretty them up for sale. If we have lots of extra bundles leftover, I just stuff them into paper bags tops and all and store them in an unused bedroom closet where it is cool, dry, and dark. Many varieties, but especially 'Chesnock Red', will keep until spring. Don't store your garlic in the fridge or in a damp cellar, they need it cool and dry if they are going to last.
Garlic makes a great gift and visitors are often sent home with a bundle or two. Another great idea is to make garlic powder to use all year long!