Garlic enlivens many different recipes, and homegrown garlic often has a richer taste than store-bought. And the good news is, it’s relatively easy to grow.
Once you’ve taken time to grow it, proper harvest and curing practices will help to ensure that your garlic keeps as long and holds its quality as well as possible. The type of garlic you grow will also impact its storage life.
How to Harvest Garlic
Harvesting Garlic Scapes
If you’re growing hardneck garlic, the first thing you’ll be able to harvest from your plants is garlic scapes. Toward the end of their growing season, your garlic plants will send up a bright green central stem which will rise from the leaves, then bend itself into a coil, then straighten out again and harden.
Some experienced growers, including Ron Engeland (WA garlic farmer and author of Growing Great Garlic) and experts from the University of Maine, recommend removing the stem or ‘scape’ so that it doesn’t divert energy from the bulb.
They disagree on the best time to do this. Engeland suggests removing scapes after they straighten and harden to improve bulb storage life. I experimented and didn’t find that this actually improved the storage life of my bulbs.
Engeland says that the conventional wisdom suggests removing stalks after they coil but before they straighten and harden. That’s what the University of New Hampshire recommends, and what I do. Softneck garlic usually doesn’t produce scapes, so this step is not needed.
Harvesting Garlic Bulbs
Garlic bulbs are planted in the fall and harvested in the summer. The exact timing for bulb harvest will vary depending on your location and the variety you’re growing. Fortunately, you don’t have to try to guess the best calendar dates. You can just watch your garlic plants and see when they’re mature enough to harvest.
When your garlic bulbs approach maturity their lower leaves will begin to die. Each leaf on a garlic plant corresponds to a wrapping around the garlic bulb. Green leaves are attached to thick and healthy bulb wrappers, brown leaves to wrappers that are decayed or decaying.
You want to harvest your plants once the lower leaves are dying (so you know the bulb is mature) but when you still have enough green top leaves to keep your bulb well wrapped against decay.
The University of North Carolina recommends harvesting when your plants have 5 to 6 intact wrapper leaves; this is what I aim for. However, you can harvest with as little as three or as many as eight wrappers.
Weather also matters. If you can, harvest your garlic after several consecutive dry days. Or, if you’re in a dry climate, stop watering several days before harvest. But if the weather stays wet and your garlic is browning fast you may have to bring it in wetter.
I harvest my hardneck garlic by tugging gently and steadily on the stems. The Cornell Cooperative Extension recommends loosening the soil with a spading fork first. Move the plants promptly to a place that’s sheltered from direct sunlight but has good air circulation.
Cooking with Garlic
Garlic is one of the most versatile cooking herbs. Some cooks like to roast it and eat it on its own. My own favorite garlic-intensive dish is pesto, a sauce made primarily from garlic and basil. Chopped or sliced, garlic lends richness and zest to stir-fries, meat-and-potato roasts, red sauces, soups of many kinds, and much more.
Garlic scapes, which have a milder flavor than garlic cloves, may be used in soups, stir-fries, egg preparations, pesto, or other dishes.
Preserving Garlic: How Long Does It Last?
Garlic can be cured and pantry-stored, or it can be frozen or dehydrated. Canning garlic is generally not recommended.
How to Prepare Garlic for Pantry Storage
Garlic will keep for many months without being canned, dried, or frozen if it has been properly cured.
When I bring my hardneck garlic in I layer it on bakery trays (plastic trays with many holes in the bottoms) so there’s good air circulation all around it. As soon as possible I clean it up for curing, as a local grower taught me to. I trim the roots to ½-1” long and brush any loose dirt out of them. Then I start peeling away the dead leaves and the decaying bulb wrappers that go with them, one at a time until I come to a clean intact wrapper.
If there are at least three green leaves/intact wrappers left (Engeland’s recommendation) the bulb is sufficiently protected to keep through the winter. I bundle these plants in batches of ten and hang them to dry in a dim airy space. If there are two or fewer layers on a bulb, I set that bulb aside to use or freeze immediately.
After the stems and leaves have become dry and brown, and before freezing temperatures make it unwise to leave the garlic open to the outside air, I clip the bulbs from the stems (leaving an inch or so of stem so as not to cut into the clove wrappers) and put them into mesh bags, which I store in a fairly dry dark cool space.
They’ll keep until sometime between March and May. I grow Rocambole garlic, which has a shorter shelf-life; Engeland says that some softneck strains will keep for up to twelve months.
If you grow softneck garlic you can braid and hang it instead of bundling, chopping, and bagging. The North Carolina Extension recommends braiding when plants are starting to dry but before stems and foliage stiffen—they suggest this stage may be reached after 2 weeks of curing.
Should You Clean Garlic Before Storing It?
Many Extension sources don’t suggest cleaning fresh garlic. Instead, they recommend curing plants whole in a well-ventilated area for 3-5 weeks and then brushing off loose soil and trimming tops and roots to 1”.
Rodale’s “Stocking Up” guide says that garlic kept at about 40 F in a dry place will keep through the winter, though Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver says only that it will last for around 3 months.
Garlic is easy to freeze. I simply bag and freeze unpeeled, unblanched cloves, enough to last from April (when our pantry-stored garlic goes soft) to July (when we’ll have fresh garlic to harvest).
If you have the time and inclination you can peel and chop your garlic before freezing it, or you may puree it in a blender (using two parts oil to one part garlic).
The Oregon State Extension recommends wrapping garlic tightly so it won’t flavor the rest of your frozen food. I just pack unpeeled cloves in freezer bags unwrapped, and I haven’t had trouble with flavor transfer.
A fair portion of my garlic harvest gets frozen as part of pesto sauce. An introduction to making and freezing pesto in this article – Savoring summer with pesto – now and later.
Experts disagree about just how long frozen garlic or frozen pesto will keep. My frozen garlic cloves and my pesto can last for more than a year without apparent loss of flavor and without causing indigestion.
Garlic can also be dried. I haven’t tried this myself. Rodale’s “Stocking Up” suggests peeling garlic and slicing it fine to dry: it doesn’t need to be blanched. Oregon State recommends halving small cloves, slicing large cloves ¼” thick, and drying them at 140 F for 2-3 hours.
If you harvest, cure, and store your garlic properly, you can enjoy it for many months after the harvest season ends. You may want to experiment with different garlic varieties, and with different methods of preservation until you find what works best for your needs.