How and When to Harvest Garlic

I have a love affair with garlic. I love that I can enjoy the fruits of your labor almost year-round.

It’s a great veggie to grow, but there are a couple of tricks that you should know when it comes to growing and harvesting garlic.

If you don’t know when to harvest garlic, you’ll run into one of two situations:

  1. Dig your garlic up early and you will have tiny bulbs.
  2. Keep your garlic in the ground too long, and you will have a split, overripe bulb that is no good.

At the same time, it is important to know how to harvest garlic. Luckily this is not too complicated.

So, let’s “dig” in and I’ll try to clear it up as much as I can!

When to Harvest Garlic

So, when should you harvest your garlic?

This is not an exact science, and it largely depends on the sort your growing and the climate you’re in. It is also important to note that there are three garlic harvests during a year.

The first harvest is usually in early spring, and the plants are usually about a feet tall at this time. You can either pull a complete plant and use this scallion for cooking or fresh garlic, or you can just cut some of the leaves and use these as a nice addition to your cuisine.

The second harvest usually happens in June and this is when you can harvest the scapes. The scapes grow from a woody central stalk that some garlic sorts have. It is generally believed that removing the scapes help in forming bulbs later on, but opinion on this issue is a bit divided among experts.

I personally prefer removing the scapes, as they are very tasty and healthy, and it does seem to help with having bigger bulbs. If you do decide to harvest scapes, they can be stored for around 3 months if refrigerated.

The third – and main – harvest comes usually later in the summer, around mid-July up to late august. Again, all of these timelines can be pushed ahead of schedule if the climate is warm, or there were stretches of unusually warm weather, so it is best to check upon your plants regularly.

There is quite a bit of preparation that comes into play here, and I will come back to go over it in detail, but I’d like to point out one last factor that can influence the time of harvest:

The kind of garlic you planted.

In general, there are softneck and hardneck garlic varieties, each with their own advantages (there are also great-headed varieties, but these are more like leeks, and are not really recommended for planting).

Softneck varieties

Softneck Garlic

A bushel of softneck garlic.

This is what you would most commonly find in your local store. These sorts are recommended for warmer climates, and they can be braided since their necks stay soft after the harvest. They typically have two layers of smaller cloves and one layer of bigger cloves around them, and have a strong flavor.

The most common softneck sorts are Silverskin and Artichoke garlic. Silverskin has stronger flavor and can be stored for around a year, while Artichoke can be stored for around 8 months and packs a bit less of a punch.

Hardneck varieties

Hardneck garlic

A harvest of hardneck garlic. source

These are great for these cold northern winters, and their deeper roots allow the plant to survive the freezing and thawing of the ground much better. Unlike softnecks, they have only one layer of fairly large cloves that grow in a ring around the stem.

While they might be easier to grow, their shelf life is unfortunately shorter. But hey, there’s less peeling involved and they have scapes. They are called hardneck because they have a rigid stalk that extends an inch or two from the top of the bulb. Most popular sorts are Rocambole, Purple Stripe, and Porcelain.

Since softneck are traditionally planted in warmer climates, you can expect their main harvest as early as late spring. Obviously, they do not have the second harvest, as they very rarely have scapes.

Harvesting garlic is a bit tricky, since you can’t see when the bulbs are ready to be dug up. If you wait until all the leaves go brown you’ll have overripe bulbs, and the cloves will start to separate, which means your garlic spoils more easily.

Since each leaf also acts as a wrapper for the bulb, it means that you would normally like to have as many live leaves when you dig your garlic out, as these wrappers can greatly increase the shelf life.

On the other hand, if you are too eager and dig them out too soon, you will end up with small bulbs that also can’t last as long when stored.

Some experts say that you should harvest when the lower leaves are brown, but the top 5-6 are still green.  A good rule of thumb is to wait until third of leaves are brown. It’s a good idea to check up on one or two plants, to see if the bulbs are big enough. Just remove a bit of dirt around the stalk to get a good look.

If you’re satisfied with the size, you should proceed with the harvest. If not, then you can wait a bit more, but when about half of the leaves are brown, you should dig out all of your garlic, no matter the size.

How to Harvest Garlic

How to Harvest Garlic

A envy-inducing garlic harvest. source

Harvesting garlic is fairly straightforward, but a bit of care should be taken. Even though it might be tempting to try and pull the bulbs out by stems, you will most likely end up with a broken-off stem, as they are fairly sensitive. This is a problem because you want to cure garlic with its leaves on, as it stores better that way.

The best way is to use a spading fork to loosen the soil around your plants, but be careful not to dig too close to the heads. When you are confident that you can dig them out, carefully lift the bulbs with a spade or a similar tool, and gently brush off the soil. If the soil has a bit of a clay-like quality and sticks, don’t try to clean it by hand, just leave it for the time being.

Now, unlike with the onions, it is really not a good idea to leave your fresh garlic too long in the sun, so don’t leave it lying around while you’re moving on to the next plant. Move it to a shady area with good air circulation, like a porch or a shed (or at least put it under a tree for the time being).

Once again, garlic is really sensitive, so avoid bumping or dropping it. They bruise easily and it greatly reduces the flavor.

How to Preserve Garlic

Garlic can last you a long time, but it has to be cured and stored properly.

Curing

In general, curing means that you allow your garlic to slowly dry down in such a way that you preserve all the nutrients and flavor. As I already mentioned, you should keep your garlic in a dry and shady place with good air circulation.

The best way, in my opinion, is to hang them upside down in bunches of 4 to 6, but other gardeners also bundle them in bunches of 10 to 12 bulbs. Smaller bunches mean that the garlic gets to breathe more, so curing is a bit faster.

Remember when I said to be careful not to snap off the stems while harvesting?

You need to cure garlic with leaves and roots, as the bulb keeps drawing energy from them over time. Intact leaves also mean that any bugs and fungi won’t spoil your garlic while it’s cured.

Curing usually takes between two weeks and two months, depending on the humidity. You will know when your garlic is ready for storage because the leaves will be completely dry and brown, and roots will look shriveled and be hard like a brush. Also, the bulb wrappers will become dry and papery, and you will be able to split cloves with ease.

Of course, you don’t have to cure all of your garlic. You can use a portion of it fresh, right out of the garden. You can even use some of your harvest to make your own garlic spray. If you plan on planting again, you should save some of your largest, best, cured bulbs.

Cleaning

Before you store your garlic, you need to trim off the roots and leaves to 1/4 or 1/2 inch. Since it is all dried up, most of the remaining dirt will dislodge, and a couple of layers of wrappers will also separate. Be careful not to remove too many wrapper layers, as they protect the cloves. It is best not to bother too much with it, just remove the dirtiest wrappers. Don’t wash the bulbs.

Storage

Storing garlic is fairly simple. Keep them in a cool, dry place. Commercially stored garlic is kept at 32 °F, but the ideal temperature range for home storage is between 40-60 °F, according to the potato and garlic experts. In other words, you can simply toss them into your kitchen cupboard, or a storage shelf.

Since garlic tends to sprout at lower temperatures, it is not advisable to store it in a refrigerator. The ideal humidity is around 60%, so don’t store it in your cellar or basement if it’s damp, because it can lead to mold and fungus.

Garlic FAQs

Q. What is the best way to store my garlic?

Garlic is fairly easy-going when it comes to storage. Really, any container that has decent airflow will do. You can put it in mesh bags, like the ones that are used to store potatoes, or you can put it in woven baskets, brown paper bags, cardboard cases, and so on.

If you were growing softneck garlic, you can remove the tops, or you can keep them and braid your garlic and hang it in a kitchen (or wherever you think is appropriate).

Q. How is a garlic braid made?

This requires that you leave quite a bit of the stem when you’re curing. After your garlic is ready for storage, you need to soak the stems to make them pliable. You start with the three largest bulbs that form the bottom of your braid. When you lay them out, you start adding the remaining bulbs (you would usually have 12-13 bulbs in a braid), and then braid them as you would braid hair.

Q. What is a “scape”?

Scapes are found in hardneck garlic varieties. A scape is a thin green extension that grows from the central woody stalk, that start to curl around the stem as it grows. Near the end of a scape is a small swelling which contains more than a hundred tiny cloves, genetically identical to cloves that are found in the bulb.

After a while these scapes die out, and the tiny cloves spill onto the ground. However, these scapes take a lot of energy that the plant could use to grow the bulb, so they are usually cut. Scapes are pretty tasty and healthy, and you can make great stir fry veggies with them.

While most people agree with the benefits of removing scapes, some experts argue that leaving scapes gives better cloves for replanting. Of course, none of this has been proven either way, so it all amounts to personal preference.

Q. How do I know garlic bulbs are ready to dig?

Check the leaves. Garlic is usually ready for harvest when the bottom leaves have died out, and only around half a dozen are still green. Before you go about digging up all of your garlic, you can check one or two of your plants, to see if the bulb is big enough, and if the wrap is properly formed.

Q. Should I leave the tops on, or cut them off?

If you are growing softneck garlic, it is simply a matter of preference and whether you want to store them in bags, or make braids out of them. For hardneck garlic, it is a common practice to cut the tops off.

Q. How long should I let garlic dry?

It depends on humidity, but between 2 weeks and 2 months. Best way to tell it is done is that leaves, roots, and wrappers dry out.


As you can see, growing garlic is a bit of a chore, when you look into all the steps that need to be taken, but it sounds worse than it is. Indeed, almost all of the work requires very little time and effort, and in turn you get a tasty, healthy, product that you can enjoy throughout the year.

So what are you waiting for? Get crackin’ and grow some garlic!

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Do you have any experience or tips you would like to share with us? Looking forward to hearing it in the comments!