Garlic is a very rewarding plant to grow in your garden, especially if you love cooking with it and are always buying it at the store. The plant itself grows well in almost any climate, and freshly harvested garlic is the best.
You can easily grow 10-20 plants in a relatively small area. Each plant will give you a whole bulb of garlic. If stored correctly, these bulbs will last through the winter months and beyond.
The key to storing garlic is to grow healthy garlic, harvest and cure the bulbs properly, and store them in the right conditions.
Here’s what you need to know about how to store garlic harvested from your garden.
Types of Garlic
When it comes to growing and storing garlic, it’s important to understand the difference between the two main types you can choose from.
Hardneck garlic is easily recognizable by the woody stem that grows out from the center of the bulb. Plants will also develop a curly green stalk, known as a scape, in the spring.
This type of garlic is most suited for colder growing conditions and lower numbered USDA hardiness zones. It actually needs the long, cold period of winter to stimulate the formation of the cloves and is most commonly grown in northern regions.
Garlic comes in many different varieties but will fall into one of two main categories: hardneck or softneck.
Hardneck varieties can develop small to large bulbs of garlic with intense flavor. Depending on the variety and conditions, there can be anywhere from four to twelve cloves per bulb.
Hardnecks won’t last as long in storage but can still be kept for months with the right curing and storing methods.
Softneck garlic is what you’ll typically find for sale in the grocery store. This is mainly because it keeps for longer in storage than hardneck varieties do.
Instead of a woody stem in the center of the bulb, softnecks typically have a single clove in the middle. Because they don’t have stems, the dried leaves can be braided to make an attractive display of garlic for farmers markets and rustic grocery stores.
Softneck garlic is not as cold hardy as hardneck and doesn’t need as long a period of cold exposure to grow. It’s mainly grown in warmer, southern regions.
Softnecks usually produce a larger amount of cloves per bulb but also tend to have a less intense flavor.
Keeping climate, flavor, and length of storage in mind, you’ll want to choose which type of garlic is best suited for your needs. Of course, you can always try both and see which one works better for you.
Softneck garlic is what you’ll typically find sold in grocery stores. It’s mainly grown in warmer regions because it isn’t as cold-hardy as hardneck varieties, but it will last longer in storage.
Planting and Growing Tips
In order to get a good harvest and have your bulbs last in storage, you need to grow strong and healthy plants. Here are some tips for planting and caring for your garlic:
- Garlic should be planted in late fall. If you live in a warmer climate with mild winters, it can also be planted in early spring. For fall planting, aim for about 2 weeks after the first frost (usually October-November in northern areas). Planting too early will cause the garlic to send up growth above ground, which will get killed at the first hard freeze.
- Garlic likes fertile soil. Add some homemade compost and mix in with your native soil before planting. Compost can also help to amend heavy clay soils that the bulbs may struggle to grow in.
- It’s best to order bulbs for planting from a local nursery or seed company. Garlic from the grocery store is often treated and may be difficult to grow. Separate all the cloves and pick out ones that are large and healthy (the rest you can cook with). Each clove will eventually form a new bulb in the ground.
- Leave the papery skin on each clove to help protect it. Plant individual cloves about 2” deep and space them 4-6” apart in a row. Rows should be about 10-14” apart. Make sure you plant each clove upright with the roots down and the pointy end up.
Separate garlic bulbs into individual cloves, but leave the papery skin on. Plant each clove 2” deep and 4-6” apart from the others.
- If you live in a region with cold winters, cover your garlic beds with a good layer of straw to help protect them. You can remove the straw in spring after the threat of frost has passed.
- If you planted hardneck garlic, you’ll need to cut off the scapes that shoot up in the spring. They taste like mild garlic, so feel free to bring them in and cook with them. Keep your garlic rows weeded, and fertilize with a nitrogen fertilizer if leaves start to yellow before midsummer.
Garlic is typically pest- and disease-free, but it can develop a fungus called white rot. The best way to prevent it is to always rotate your crops and don’t plant garlic in the same space for years in a row.
When to Harvest Garlic
Harvesting your garlic is the fun part because it’s the step right before you get to eat it or store it.
Harvest time will be different depending on the type and variety of garlic you planted, but most fall plantings will be mature in about 8 months. If you did a spring planting, it will take about 90-100 days.
The typical harvest date will be sometime in June or August, but you’ll need to observe your plants to know when they’re ready.
When it’s time to harvest, the leaves will start turning yellow and flopping over instead of standing upright. About ⅔ of the leaves should be yellowing before you start digging them up.
Leaving your garlic in the ground will cause bulbs to separate and split, like in this picture. If this happens, you can use these cloves for cooking, but they won’t store very well.
Harvesting too early will mean you end up with small bulbs with thin skin that won’t store well. On the other hand, leaving them in the ground too long will cause the cloves to separate and burst the skin, also making them difficult to store.
How to Harvest Garlic
Before you dig your whole crop up, the first step is to dig up a test bulb to make sure your crop is ready.
Carefully dig up a bulb, making sure you don’t hit and damage it with your shovel. Check to see if it’s a mature size, firm, and with papery skin thick and intact. If so, you can move on to harvesting all of your garlic.
To harvest, use a spade or garden fork to dig around and under the bulbs. Don’t try to just pull the bulbs up by the stem or you’ll likely damage them. Any bruised or cut garlic can’t be stored.
Once you’ve loosened the soil, lift up the bulbs with your shovel or garden fork and gently pull them out of the soil. Brush off as much soil as you can and collect them in a basket or large container.
How to Cure Garlic
Curing your garlic before storing it is an essential step. If you don’t, it won’t last long in storage at all.
First, clean as much dirt off the bulbs as you can, but don’t take off the leaves or roots. Then, gather your garlic into bunches of 4-6 and tie the stems together with string or garden twine.
If you have softneck garlic, you can braid the leaves together instead of tying them to form your bundles.
Hang the garlic bunches up in a spot that’s shaded, dry, and has lots of air flow. As an alternative, you can also lay out your garlic on a mesh rack to cure.
The curing process should take about two weeks. Your bulbs are ready for storage when the skins are dry and papery to the touch.
How to Store Garlic
Before storing your garlic bulbs, you need to clean them up.
Cut the stems of hardneck varieties to about 2” long. You can trim the leaves off of softneck varieties the same way or leave them on if you want your garlic bunches to be braided.
At this point, you also want to remove the roots and the outer paper wrappers. The roots should be dry and brittle, so you can just brush your hands along the base of the bulbs to knock them off. Then, you can peel off the outer layer or two of dirty skin, but leave the rest on.
Clean up the bulbs before storing them by removing the roots and most of the stem as well as taking off the outer layer or two of papery skin.
If you notice that any of the bulbs or individual cloves are bruised or feel soft, remove them and use them for cooking instead of storage.
Once the garlic bulbs are cleaned, store them in mesh bags somewhere cool, dark, and dry.
Storing at temperatures around 55-65°F will keep the bulbs good for a few months (longer for softneck varieties). Storing at 40°F will make them last longer: 6-12 months depending on which variety you have.
Check your garlic occasionally and discard any that start growing mold. You can also save a few of your best bulbs to plant in the fall for next year’s harvest.
Other Storage Methods
There are a few other ways to store garlic besides curing and drying it. There are also some methods you shouldn’t use.
It’s normal to think that refrigeration would be a good way to store garlic because that’s how a lot of fresh produce is preserved.
However, there are a few reasons you don’t want to do this. For one thing, refrigerators often have a higher humidity level that will cause garlic bulbs to get soft and develop mold.
It’s tempting to store your garlic in the refrigerator, but it will only last for a short time if you do this. Dry and store in a cool place or use one of the other methods below.
Refrigerators can also mimic the cold temperatures that tell garlic it’s time to start sprouting. Once the bulbs start sprouting, they become bitter and will eventually shrivel as they put their stored energy into growing a shoot.
You only want to refrigerate garlic if you’ve chopped too much while cooking and need to store it for later. Even then, only keep it for a few days because garlic can develop the bacteria that causes botulism.
Freezing garlic, on the other hand, is a great method for storing it, especially if you don’t have room for dried bunches or if you want it to be ready for immediate use.
You can freeze whole cloves in plastic bags or freezer-safe containers. Or you can peel and chop garlic and pack it into an ice cube tray. Make sure you cover the tray with plastic wrap and place in a plastic bag.
With this method, all you need to do is thaw the amount of garlic you want to use for a recipe and add it right in.
Garlic in Oil
You’ve likely seen chopped or whole garlic stored in oil for easy use. Or maybe you’ve seen this as a DIY recipe.
However, if not done correctly, storing you garlic in oil can become deadly. Garlic often contains spores of the Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which is what causes botulism (a sometimes fatal disease).
Normally, the spores are harmless. They are naturally present in many soils and transfer to vegetables grown in the soil.
Garlic in oil is a popular recipe to make, but it can encourage the formation of bacteria that cause botulism. Skip this recipe or make and consume within 2-3 days.
The spores need a low-acid and oxygen-free environment to start growing and producing the toxins that are harmful to humans. Garlic that is hanging up has plenty of oxygen, and freezing stops the process.
On the other hand, covering cloves in oil creates an oxygen-free environment that encourages bacterial growth. The containers of garlic in oil you see sold at the store have some kind of acid added (like citric acid) to prevent this.
If you really want to do garlic in oil at home, refrigerate the mix right away and consume within 2-3 days.
Storing in Vinegar
Using vinegar to store garlic is an excellent way to prevent the problems that come with trying to store it in oil. Vinegar is very acidic, so it creates an environment that the botulism bacteria can’t grow in.
To do this, peel and place garlic cloves in a quart or pint jar. Fill up the jar with white vinegar or apple cider vinegar so that the cloves are entirely covered. Store the jars in your refrigerator where they will last 3-5 months.
Dehydrating garlic takes drying it one step further and can create the dry garlic flakes or powder you see in stores.
However you choose to store your garlic, there are tons of ways to use it to make tasty recipes. Storing your harvest will make it last through the winter and maybe all the way until next summer.
This is best done in a food dehydrator, but you can also use an oven set at 130-140°F (or the lowest temperature setting you have).
Once the cloves are completed dehydrated, you can leave them as is or break them up further and store in glass spice jars.
Using Your Stored Garlic
There are many ways to use your stored (or fresh) garlic besides just cooking with it.
You can try roasting it to bring out more of its natural sweetness or pickling it if you love a sour kick. If you dehydrated any garlic, you can use it to make garlic salt or a custom herb blend to season food.
However you choose to use it, knowing how to store garlic will ensure that you enjoy your harvest for months. It’s one of the best crops to add to your vegetable garden and also one of the longest lasting in storage.
Follow these tips and you’ll be a garlic expert in no time!