Growing garlic is more than just a means to an end: it’s a ritual. After all, it’s one of our most beloved foods. Known for its healing powers and amazing flavor, garlic is a staple in almost every home. Once you’ve gotten the hang of growing and harvesting garlic from your own garden, you’ll never look at a store-bought bulb again.
Whether you put it in your vegan coconut curry, or atop a pesto and lamb pizza, garlic is essential. The best way to get good quality, flavorful garlic is, of course, to grow your own. But like so many vegetables, garlic growing has a bit of a learning curve.
My first year growing it was a disappointment. I wasn’t sure when to harvest, so my plants spent almost a month longer in the ground than they should have. When garlic spends too long in the soil, the bulb splits open and often either molds or withers.
It’s not a pretty sight.
The truth is, while harvesting garlic can seem like a straightforward process, it’s often intimidating. Those rows and rows of graceful, green stalks represent a lot of time and effort. You want them to be delicious. Each bulb is waiting beneath the soil, packed with flavor and nutrients, and harvesting is easier than it feels!
The Right Time for Harvesting Garlic
Don’t allow uncertainty to delay your harvest. Sometime in midsummer, you’ll see those graceful stems start to fade into yellows and browns. Soft-neck varieties will start fading about a week before hard-neck varieties.
When about 40% of the stem is looking dry and dull, your garlic is ready to harvest. At that point, you just need the right weather and you can start pulling up your bulbs. You can wait up to a week after your bulbs are ripe for the perfect harvesting day to come along. After that, it’s better to harvest in less-than-ideal conditions than to leave your plants in the soil.
Watching the Weather
So, what are the ideal garlic harvesting conditions? Hot, dry, sunny days are ideal. Try to pick a day when the ground is dry. It’s easier to shake the dirt from your garlic bulbs when the dirt is lightweight and dusty.
While it’s fine to harvest on cloudy, cool days as well, try to fit in your garlic harvest before summer storms make mud out of your fields. Avoid rainy or humid days whenever possible. Remember, you’ll be drying your garlic after harvesting, and soaking wet bulbs dry a lot more slowly than newly harvested, sun-dried bulbs.
Avoid watering your garlic for at least a week prior to harvesting. That will help the soil dry out and make curing your bulbs easier later on. Once you see the stem start to dry out, go easy on the water. Garlic at this stage of growing needs very little water, and harvesting will be so much easier if you keep the soil dry.
Loosening the Soil
The first time I harvested garlic, I just grabbed the stem and pulled. I thought the bulb would just pop out of the soil, trailing soft soil and rustling a bit in the wind. Instead, the stem broke off in my hand and I had to do a little digging to get the bulb out.
It’s less romantic than the image I’d had of harvesting garlic, but loosening the soil around your bulb is essential. Use a gardening fork or a short spade to loosen the soil around each garlic plant. You don’t have to dig: just lessen the resistance each bulb will encounter on its way out of the ground.
If you’ll be harvesting all the garlic at once, it’s often easier to loosen the soil around all your plants first, and then go back through harvesting.
Alright, you’ve picked a beautiful, dry day and loosened the soil around each stalk. You’re in the garden with a big, wide basket (or a wheelbarrow) to hold the garlic. At this point, all you need to do is grasp the garlic at the base of the stem and pull.
It’s best to give a gentle tug first, to loosen up the roots. Then you can pull gently and firmly upward. You want to keep the stalks on your freshly harvested garlic bulbs as much as possible. The stalks help the bulbs cure after harvesting, and on soft-necked garlic bulbs, the stalks can be braided to make beautiful and effective wreaths for storing bulbs.
When all the garlic is pulled, it’s time to cure!
Even though it’s ideal to harvest in hot, sunny weather, we don’t want to cure in the sunlight. Laying your garlic out in the sunshine can actually cook your garlic cloves. It’s not time for us to cook the garlic yet!
Choose a cool, well-ventilated place out of direct sunshine to cure your garlic. Somewhere with enough space to hang your plants for 2 to 3 weeks. Many people like to cure their garlic in a open barn, while others have a root cellar with low humidity.
After hanging for about 3 weeks, your garlic bulbs will be cured. At this point, you can remove the stems and store them in a basket, bowl, or crate. You can tell that the bulbs are cured when there’s no noticeable moisture when you cut the stem from the bulb.
Keep them in a cool, dry place for long-term storage. Heat and moisture reduce garlic’s shelf life significantly. Refrigeration is also a terrible way to store bulbs, as refrigerated garlic tends to sprout quickly. Store your garlic in the pantry, or in a basket on the floor instead.
If you’ve grown both hard and soft-neck garlic, you should use the hard-neck first. Well-cured hard-neck garlic will last about 5 months. Soft-neck garlic stores well for up to 9 months. Save the soft-neck varieties for late winter and spring, and use the more flavorful, hard-neck bulbs in the fall and winter.
Braiding Garlic for Long Term Storage
Soft-neck garlic may not have the full, intense flavor of hard-neck, but it is delicious, lasts for months, and it can be easily braided and hung around the house. Braiding your garlic is a beautiful, decorative way to store an abundant harvest.
Start with 8-10 soft-neck garlic plants with long, intact stems. Rub off any remaining dirt and trim the roots short. This will keep your braid neat and pretty.
Start your braid by tying them together with twine at the base. Then you’ll have three stalks fanning out from the bulbs, ready to braid. I like to make one pass of the stems over each other before weaving in my other bulbs, but some people like to add in the next bulb right away.
Now add another bulb, right in the center of your original 3. Lay the new stalk over the center stalk and braid the stalks together.
After one or two passes, add another bulb on the right side. Lay its stalk in the middle – new stalks will always go in the middle. Braid another pass or two across the stalks and then put a new bulb on the left side.
You’ll continue this pattern the whole way down. Braiding each section and then adding a new bulb. When you reach the end of the braid, tie off the bottom of the stems and hang your braid indoors, out of direct sunlight.
There’s nothing more charming than braids of garlic along the walls. They make the winter cozier and our kitchens more fragrant.
After harvesting and curing your garlic, storage is easy. But it’s nice to have a bit of variety. Braid your soft-neck bulbs and hang them up until your hard-neck bulbs are all used up. Another way to preserve garlic if by making garlic honey.
Garlic honey is a great way to preserve hard-neck garlic long term. Just peel garlic cloves and put them in a small (or large) mason jar. Pour raw honey over the cloves, covering them completely. Screw on a lid and set them somewhere cool and dark. You can start using them after about 2 weeks. After a month, store the jar in the refrigerator.
Garlic honey will last at least a year in the refrigerator. Take a spoonful of honey or a soft, sweet clove anytime you want to boost immunity. You can also spread garlic honey on toast for a uniquely delicious topping.
Ready to Start Harvesting Garlic?
How do you feel? Are you ready to harvest?
See, it’s not as intimidating as it feels. You’re going to do a great job pulling up those bulbs! Just remember the most important points:
1. Harvest when 40% of the stem is dry.
2. Pick a dry day, when the soil is dry to the touch.
3. Loosen the soil with a garden fork or spade before pulling up the plants.
4. Pull gently, from the base of the plant.
5. Cure your garlic in a shady, dry place for up to 3 weeks.
Pretty basic, isn’t it? After your first harvest, you’ll feel like a garlic harvesting professional. I know you’ll love this beautiful, end of summer ritual.