Harvesting garlic is easy, and is the same for all hardneck or softneck types. By early summer, when the bulbs start to fatten up, you can begin harvesting. Around the first of August, the leaves on your garlic plants will begin to yellow and dry and start to flop over. This happens at the "base" of the garlic plant and it signals that the plant has stopped growing and bulbs are ready for harvest. Garlic should be harvested sooner than later. When garlic harvest time arrives, have a storage plan in mind. Store clean garlic in a cool cellar for several months. Don’t store garlic above 65 degrees fahrenheit for longer than three months, in direct sunlight, or near a heat source.
It is August 2nd and we are absorbed in harvesting the season’s garlic crop. All our varieties are from GroEat Farm, a family-owned farm in Montana. It was only a month ago, in June, when we harvested the garlic scapes. Garlic scapes are the curling, non-flowering “flower” stalks of garlic plants that appear a few weeks after the first leaves. We usually cut them off to encourage larger bulb growth. On a few selected garlic plants, we allow the scapes to mature. Eventually the scape develops a casing that looks like a plumbob, about an inch in diameter and three-six inches long, housing countless teardrop-shaped bulblets (or bulbils) with pale purple to brown skin. These are true garlic seed, that almost look like tiny garlic cloves ranging from the size of a grain of rice to a kernel of sweet corn.
Harvesting garlic at the right time is very important. Determining when to harvest is probably the trickiest part of the process, and every year is different based on weather conditions. If you harvest too early, the bulbs will be small and may not have the necessary paper wrappers needed for storage. If you wait too long the important and delicate paper wrappers that seal the garlic head - may dissolve, split, or will separate from the head, which can result in dehydration and even the growth of a blue mold called Penicillium hirsutum. Penicillium decay of stored bulbs is common if the garlic was harvested too late.
To determine when to harvest our garlic, we use a three-step approach as a rule of thumb. First, we wait until the bottom three leaves are brown and the top leaves remain green. Second, we harvest just one garlic bulb (starting in Mid July) and inspect it carefully. How does the bulb look? Size, shape, color, wrapper integrity? The shape of the individual cloves should be visible under the wrappers. If the bulb still appears underdeveloped, we wait another week. Third, we harvest another garlic bulb a week later to determine if it is time to harvest all of the garlic based on our inspection. Because each leaf represents a wrapper layer on the bulb, we do not want to wait until all the leaves to turn brown, as there will be no wrapper layers on the bulb. We harvest garlic when the soil is dry, typically a week or so after a rain or after irrigation has been turned off. This helps ensure the garlic bulbs are dry on the outside.
Now that you know when to harvest garlic, you’ll want to know the best procedure for how to harvest garlic bulbs from the garden. Grabbing the foliage and giving it a pull often results in a handful of foliage with no garlic attached (or even worse, a damaged bulb). It helps to loosen the soil with a garden fork before harvesting. This freshly-harvested garlic can be easily bruised so we carefully remove excess soil using a brush, although you can leave most of that dirt on as we'll take care of it later. We never wash the garlic and we do not leave freshly harvested garlic in the sun.
Curing garlic gets it ready for long-term storage. Do not wash them off or get the bulbs wet. Leave the stalks, leaves and roots on the bulbs while they dry. Allow the bulbs to cure for 3 to 4 weeks in either a well-ventilated room or a dry, shady spot outside. Direct Sunlight can change the flavor of fresh garlic. As the garlic cures, we keep them well separated with the bulb side down.
Cleaning consists of trimming the leaves and roots and removing the dirty outer wrappers. If the roots are crispy dry the roots and dirt will come off with a couple of rubs with a glove. Another trick is to rub the roots on a foam sanding block, used to sand drywall. If the roots are not crispy dry, use kitchen scissors or shears to trim them with snips. Trim the tops, leaving an inch or so of the stem intact, being careful not to cut the skins protecting the individual cloves. We leave about an inch and a half of the stem on hardnecks which make cracking or popping a clove easy. The papery wrapping protects the garlic and keeps it fresh. Remove just the dirtiest outer layers of wrappers, and place the clean bulbs in mesh bags or horticulture boxes, and label.
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.