Full of flavor and easy to grow, garlic is a great addition to the vegetable garden. While it may be easy to cultivate large, flavorsome bulbs, it can be difficult to know when to harvest garlic. If you harvest your garlic bulbs too early they will be small and lacking in flavor. Allowing the bulbs to sit in the ground for too long can cause them to over ripen and split.
A problem that can tax even the most experienced of gardeners, if you struggle to know when to harvest garlic, this guide will explain exactly what signs to look out for. We will also tell you how to successfully harvest ripe bulbs for maximum flavor and storage.
Knowing when to harvest blubs enables you to get the most out of your cloves.
When Should I Harvest Garlic?
Knowing when to harvest garlic is not an exact science. How long a bulb takes to mature depends on a variety of different factors such as the variety you are growing and the climate you are growing in. Additionally, many people don’t realize that harvesting can take place up to 3 times during the growing year.
The first harvest usually occurs in early spring, when the plants are about 1 ft tall. At this stage you can either pull up the entire plant to use as a scallion or just cut away some of the foliage. The subtle flavor of the foliage can be used to season a number of dishes.
The foliage of the plant can be harvested earlier than the bulbs.
The second harvest usually takes place during June. This is when you harvest the scapes. These emerge from the woody central stalk and if allowed to, will develop into flower heads. Removing scapes encourages larger bulbs to form. But there is no need to discard them. These tender stalks are full of nutrients and flavor. If you’ve never tried scapes, they are similar to young asparagus stems, but with a subtle garlic flavor. You can store scapes for up to 3 months in a refrigerator.
Finally, the third or main harvest takes place in late summer, usually from mid July to late August. This is when you lift the large, fully formed bulbs.
Remember the harvesting timeline depends on a range of factors including the variety and climate. If you are growing in warmer conditions you can lift bulbs quite a few weeks before growers in colder climates. For new gardeners the idea of USDA zones may be confusing. This guide not only explains what each zone is but also lists some of the many plants, herbs, fruit and vegetables you can grow.
As I have already noted, when to harvest garlic also depends on the variety of plant that you are growing. The plants are generally divided into softneck and hardneck varieties.
The Difference Between Softneck and Hardneck Varieties
Usually found for sale in grocery stores, softneck varieties are known for their strong flavor. Softnecks are ideal for growers in warm climates. After harvesting, their soft green stems, or necks, can be braided together enabling you to easily dry and store the bulbs.
Softneck bulbs typically have two layers of small cloves and one layer of large clove. Common cultivars include Artichoke and Silverskin. The latter is particularly popular for its strong flavor and can be stored for a year.
The main softneck harvest can start as early as late spring, a couple of weeks before hardneck varieties. This is largely because they are typically grown in warmer climates than hardneck varieties. Softneck varieties also don’t have the second harvest because they don’t produce the rigid scapes.
Unlike hardneck cultivars, softneck varieties don’t produce scapes.
Hardneck varieties are better suited to growing in colder climates. They cope pleasingly well with harsh northern winters where their deep roots enable the plant to survive freezing temperatures. Hardneck bulbs typically consist of one layer of large cloves which form in a ring around the central stem. This variety is known as hardneck garlic because its neck, or stalk which extends from the bulb is hard and rigid.
Hardneck bulbs are easier to grow than softneck varieties but they don’t store as well. Common cultivars include Porcelain and Rocambole.
Identifying When to Harvest Garlic
The main difficulty with knowing precisely when to harvest garlic bulbs comes from the fact that you can’t see how the bulbs are developing until you dig them up. Harvesting too late means that the cloves have started to split and fade while harvesting too early leaves you with a lot of small bulbs that won’t store well.
One way to know when harvesting should begin is to keep an eye on the foliage. Each leaf visible above ground is also a layer of underground protective wrapping. So if there are 10 leaves visible above ground, there will be 10 protective layers around the bulb. Ideally you want a number of live leaves wrapped around the bulb when you harvest. This helps to extend the shelflife of the bulb, enabling you to store it for longer.
Allow the lower leaves to brown before harvesting. Aim to harvest your bulbs when the top 5 or 6 leaves are still green. Alternatively lift the bulbs when one third of the foliage is brown.
Let some of the low leaves brown before harvesting.
Don’t wait until all the foliage has turned brown means that the bulbs are usually overripe and the cloves are starting to separate. Overripe cloves tend to spoil more easily and don’t store well.
How to Harvest Garlic
Once you know when to harvest garlic, the next step is learning how to lift the tasty bulbs.
When some of the foliage has died away, check one garlic bulb before harvesting the entire crop. To check the size and condition of a bulb, carefully remove some of the topsoil and mulch from around the stalk. This enables you to inspect the bulb. If it is a good size then you can start to lifting your entire crop. If the bulb is too small, recover and allow it to continue developing for a few days.
Harvesting garlic is pleasingly straightforward. But you must be careful. Don’t just pull the bulbs out of the ground by the stem. This can break the stem and may damage the bulb. If you want to cure and store the bulbs you shouldn’t break the stem. You need both the stem and some leaves on the bulb for it to store properly.
Use a spade or fork to loosen the soil around the blub. Don’t dig too closely to the bulb in case you accidentally damage it. Slowly work around the bulb until you can lift it from the soil.
Gently brush the soil away from the bulb. Allow clay like soil that is stuck in the bulb to remain in place. You may want to wear a pair of work gloves during the harvest to protect your hands.
When harvesting, lift as much of the plant in one go as possible.
After harvesting, allow the bulbs to dry before using them. This is easily done by placing them in a dry, shady spot which has good air circulation. A greenhouse is ideal. Don’t leave the bulbs out in the sun. Finally, when handling the bulbs be careful not to drop or bump them. Despite their hardy appearance these bulbs bruise easily. This can reduce flavor and hamper storage.
Storing Garlic Bulbs
While bulbs are best used fresh, if you have a glut of the bulbs they should be cured before storing. Curing is simply the process of drying out bulbs whilst preserving their flavor and nutrients.
Cure your bulbs in a dry place away from sunlight. Braiding softneck varieties together in bunches of up to 12 or placing the bulbs in a Net String Shopping Bag and hanging them up allows the air to circulate fully around them, helping to speed up the curing process.
Depending on how well the air can circulate around the bulbs and humidity levels, curing can take up to 2 months. Once cured the leaves around the garlic bulbs will be papery dry and brown. The roots will be hard and shrivelled. Finally, you will find that you are able to easily split the cloves.
After curing, use a sharp scissors to trim the roots and leaves down to about a quarter to half an inch. During this process most of the remaining dirt will dislodge. At this stage you can remove some of the papery layer. Don’t remove all the layers, just the dirtiest, outer layers. Don’t wash the cured bulb.
Store cured bulbs in a cool dry place such as a kitchen cupboard. The surrounding temperature should be 40 to 60 ℉. Don’t place the cured bulbs in temperatures lower than this, such as in a refrigerator. This can encourage the bulbs to sprout. The humidity levels around the stored bulbs should be about 60%. Avoid placing the bulbs in damp cellars or basements. This can cause mold or fungus to develop. A dehumidifier can help to keep basements dry.
Cure, or dry the bulbs before storing.
If you’ve never stored fresh bulbs before, this is a great, detailed guide to storing garlic.
Once you know what to look for, learning when to harvest garlic is a rewardingly easy process. A vital bit of gardening knowledge, harvesting at the right time enables you to make the most of your garlic crops.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.