When Should I Harvest Garlic?
Updated: Dec 13, 2019
You planted garlic cloves last fall. You watched the garlic plant grow big and tall. You spent countless hours pulling weeds. When should you harvest your garlic?
Timing is Everything.
When harvesting garlic, timing is very important. If you wait too long to harvest, the delicate wrappers that cover the garlic bulbs will disintegrate. If you harvest too soon, your garlic bulbs might not reach their full potential size. Since the crop is hidden underground, how do you know when this edible Allium is ready for harvest? Like tarot and fortune-telling, it’s all in reading the leaves. On a hardneck garlic plant, leaves are on both sides of the stem. Each leaf corresponds to a thin, papery skin around the bulb that's growing underground; the lower leaves are the outside layer.
If you harvest your garlic at the right time, there should be several layers of bulb wrappers remaining, the bulbs should be plump, the bulb should be mature, free from mold, decay, shattered cloves, and from damage caused by dirt or staining. The bulbs should be free from sunburn, sunscald, cuts, sprouts, tops, roots, disease, insects, and mechanical damage. Each bulb should be fairly well enclosed in its outer sheath. The minimum diameter of each bulb shall be not less than 1-1/2 inches. (Source: USDA Standards for Grades of Garlic).
Harvesting Garlic Scapes.
In late spring or early summer, hardneck garlic produces curled garlic scapes, which are immature flower buds on succulent stems. The end of the scape has the appearance of a plumbob. Removing the scape allows the plant to put more energy and resources into the bulb, resulting in increased bulb size! Clip or snap-off the scape before they push up vertically. Garlic scapes are a delicious big-flavor vegetable that can be refrigerated, frozen or blanched, then frozen.
When To Harvest Garlic.
When harvesting garlic, wait until the bottom three leaves of the plant have turned brown and begin to droop downward and the remaining leaves are still green and vibrant. Dig a bulb or two for observation and inspection. Because each leaf on the garlic plant corresponds to a thin, papery layer around the bulb that's growing underground; the lower leaves are the outside layer. When the bottom three leaves have turned brown and dried, then you know that the outside layers of the bulb are also dry and papery. Each leaf that browns is one fewer potential wrapper to protect the bulb. (Harvesting too soon can also diminish the bulbs’ shelf life in storage, and may limit the bulbs reaching full size.) If you wait for all the leaves to go brown, you will sadly see the overripe bulbs whose cloves are starting to separate from one another, and the resulting "unwrapped" heads won’t store as long.
The garlic plant includes a mature bulb, that is several inches deep, and has a strong root system. Never try to pull it out of the ground. Such rough handling could damage that thin, paper-like protective layer that surrounds the garlic head. Instead, loosen the soil around it with a garden fork, spade, or shovel, and dig the garlic bulbs up carefully, taking care not to slice through them. Once loosened, you can gently lift the bulb out. Keep the shovel or fork well away from the bulb, then shake or gently rub any loose soil or dirt by hand.
To cure garlic, leave the roots, stem and leaves in place. Either hang or lay the garlic in a well-vented area (not in full sun) to cure it. The curing process is important. Garlic should be cured or dried prior to storing it for later use. Brush off any soil remnants clinging to the bulbs. You may have a desire to use water and wash the garlic, but do not wash them off or get the bulbs wet. Allow the bulbs to cure for 3 to 4 weeks in either a well-ventilated room or a dry, shady spot outside. Sunlight can change the flavor of fresh garlic. After three weeks of curing, use heavy-duty scissors or pruning shears to cut off all but about 2 inches of stem. After removing excess soil from the root ball, clip the roots. You can also further clean the bulbs by removing just the outer skin. Don't remove too many of the delicate papery layers and be careful not to expose any of the cloves. Read the full article on curing garlic here.
Keep your garlic in a dark, cool (32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit) place where it will still get some air circulation. Don’t hang it in the kitchen where it will be exposed to bright light. Hardneck varieties may dry out, sprout, or go soft within 2 to 5 months. Storing hardnecks right at freezing temperature sometimes helps them survive for up to 7 months without deteriorating.
Jere Folgert is the owner of GroEat Garlic Farm in Bozeman, Montana. GroEat Farm is a small, sustainable family farm located in the beautiful Hyalite Foothills, in the shadows of the Gallatin Mountain Range. The hardneck varieties that they grow on their farm flourish, due to the combination of the cold winters, temperate summers, moist spring, and the dynamic alluvial soils, washed down from the Gallatin Range.