For us in Colorado, garlic usually comes out of the ground sometime during the last week of June to the first week of July. While that rough timeline may apply to a fairly large chunk of the lower 48, we can’t speak with confidence about states with significantly different climates from ours, so always ask your local growers at farmers’ markets about their timelines.
Since we grow mostly hardneck garlic varieties, we start the count down to harvest when the garlic scapes (garlic’s flower bulb) show up, almost always during the first week of June. Once the scape grows out until it curls around once we harvest the scapes, give the garlic one more deep watering, and then shut off all water to the garlic patch. Garlic will store better if you let it “dry down” or begin curing, in the ground. We allow the garlic to sit in the ground without water for around two weeks before actually beginning harvest. Harvest is almost always the first days of July.
If you have only softneck varieties which don’t produce a scape, you can mark your time to harvest by counting leaves. Knowing that we usually harvest around the first of July, we start counting garlic leaves in June. As garlic matures, the bottom leaves of plants start turning brown and curling down toward the stalk. When 7-8 green leaves are left on the majority of the plants, that’s the signal to cut off water. Harvest the softneck when 6-7 green leaves are left.
As we get closer to the harvest date, we regularly pull a head here and there to see both the size and the clove development. Ideally, you want nice-sized heads and fully developed cloves, but you don’t want the heads to stay in the ground so long that the cloves start to bulge out and separate from the head. If you see signs of cloves separating, they need to come out of the ground right away.
You’ll need good digging tools to pull your garlic. We generally use potato forks, but for small patches a standard shovel will work as well. Perhaps the biggest key to harvesting garlic: don’t puncture the heads. When digging garlic, set your shovel or fork several inches back from the plant, push it down deeply into the soil (you want to get deeper than the head of garlic) and lift the soil around the heads of garlic, along with the garlic itself. This will snap off the roots, allowing you to then simply grab the garlic by the stalk and shake off the excess soil.
Once pulled from the ground, garlic should be immediately moved into the shade, as fresh garlic can sunburn, which will affect its storage capability.
Even taking care, we inevitably puncture a few heads every harvest. Garlic damaged during harvest is perfectly good to eat, but will not keep. Take it back to the kitchen, clean it, and store it in the refrigerator for use within a week.
The garlic you pull from the ground will not just miraculously cure into the dried bulbs like those in the grocery store. In order to cure, garlic should be hung in a shaded, dry location, with air movement. Hot, dry, and breezy is ideal. Out of direct sunlight is mandatory. In Colorado, our climate works beautifully for this. Barns and sheds work great…but so do covered patios and garages.
Garlic should be disturbed as little as possible before curing, so do not clean garlic before drying it. Simply shake off the largest clumps of soil, and leave the rest to hang.
Tie the garlic in small bunches and hang. We hang ours in daisy chains of 10 groups of 10 heads each to make it easy for counting (see photo), but most backyard gardeners won’t need to worry about that quantity. However, keeping the hanging bunches to about 10 heads reduces the chance of them molding as they dry. The more leaves you have bunched together, the more moisture is crammed in there and the greater chance of mold. Our climate is so dry, we have never had mold issues, but this is an important consideration in more humid areas.
Depending on your drying location (and, largely, on your climate) garlic will take 2-4 weeks to dry down. At any point during this process, you can still be eating it! Just cut the heads down as you need them, peel, and eat.
One the stalks of garlic are completely dried down, showing no signs of green through the middle, and the outside of the garlic is dry and papery to the touch, the garlic is ready to take down. Cut off the stalks a half inch to an inch above the head and brush off any remaining soil. If your garlic is for home use, this is enough of a cleaning. If you want it to look exceptionally pretty (as we do for market) you can carefully peel off the outmost layer of skin, leaving the clean, unblemished layer exposed. However, if you choose to do this, take care to remove only the outer layer. Removing too much of the dried skin will affect storage life. In general, the less you mess with the cured heads of garlic, the longer they will store, so if you can handle a slightly dirty head of garlic, that’s best!
Store garlic in a dry area, out of direct sunlight, where it has some air circulation. We keep all of our heads without stalks (hardneck and any softneck that we don’t braid) in baskets in the kitchen and pantry. Garlic braids can be hung anywhere out of direct sunlight from the windows and away from heat (not by the stove!)
Hardneck varieties should last about five months from harvest and softneck about 9 months, so peel, eat, and enjoy!