I got lucky when I married Italian because garlic is, was and always will be one of my favorite foods in the kitchen. And it’s one of my favorites to plant.
Garlic is another crop that basically takes care of itself. If you get the right cloves to plant then give those cloves a good start in the right soil at the right time, you should harvest enough nice-sized bulbs of garlic to last through the year.
The Bad News
Garlic is planted in the fall. If you didn’t put your garlic seed (cloves actually) in the ground in October, it’s too late to plant it now.
If you plant in the Spring, you are doomed to fail. Seed garlic is dormant. It MUST be exposed to cold temperatures in order to grow and change from cloves to bulbs.
No cold means no bulbs, spindly growth and frustrated gardeners.
Besides, planting in the fall means that Mother Nature gets to do all the work while you sit inside browsing through seed catalogs and dreaming of spring.
The Good News
If you planted your cloves in the fall, you should already have healthy, happy garlic babies growing in the soil.
Planting when the world is getting frosty, the snow is falling and the wind is cold seems wrong and it would be if that’s all you did.
But there’s an easy, cheap trick to keeping your garlic safe through the blustery winter months; you blanket them in straw. The straw protects the bulbs from the cold, lets them overwinter safely and ensures they will be ready to start growing as early as March.
Once Spring arrives, it’s important to uncover the garlic as soon as possible so the sprouts don’t rot. If they rot, you will lose your garlic crop. Here’s an easy tip for knowing when to uncover garlic (and onions). When the forsythia bloom, pull back the mulch. You may even find a few garlic bulbs already sprouted under there.
Depending on your zone, you will probably get a few frosts after you uncover the garlic. Just toss something over the young plants to protect them. I use window frames that I’ve stapled old curtains to or an old queen-sized mattress cover and drape it over the corners of the bed where the garlic is planted.
How do you know when to pull the garlic up? Honestly, this has always been a struggle for me. And the more I researched and read, the more confused I got.
Pull it up on this day/date. When the leaves on one or two start to brown, push the rest of them over, wait a week and pull them up. Wait until all the leaves on the plants are brown then pull them up. Aaaaaaargh…as one our most famous philosophers used to say!
What finally cleared it all up for me was a simple, beautifully written article by one of my favorite garden gurus, Margaret Roach, who clearly understands the garlic harvest conundrum.
Too early, and the bulbs won’t have time to develop to their full size. Too late and the bulbs will be over ripe, cloves will separate and the harvest won’t store as well.
Here’s the gist of Roach’s advice for harvesting garlic: Harvest when several of the lower leaves go brown, but five or six up top are still green. Depending on the weather, this typically happens here (New York state) in late July.”
Rip & Regret
A word to the wise: healthy garlic develops a pretty serious root structure. Do NOT try to pull garlic up by its greenery! You will break the tops off and the garlic bulbs really need their tops to cure.
So, what’s the easiest way to pull these babies out of the ground? With a garden fork – not the hand-held kind. You want a flat-tined, digging fork like the kind you would use to dig out potatoes, like the one you see resting next to my garlic in my wheelbarrow.
- Start about 2 to 3 inches away from the garlic bulb.
- Push the tines down into the earth, almost as far as they will go.
- Rock the fork front to back and side to side to loosen the dirt around the roots of the bulb.
- Keep loosening until you can easily and gently pull the bulb from the ground.
- Equally gently, lay the cloves into a wheelbarrow. Banging them will bruise them.
As soon as all your bulbs of garlic are out of the ground, you need to get them out of the sun and into a nice, dry, temperature controlled space with good air flow. I use my shed. I lay down an old sheet, then place the bulbs side by side but not touching. I want air flow around each bulb. And if one’s going south, I don’t want it to take the others with it.
Once you have them in your controlled drying spot, leave them alone for 6 to 8 weeks while they cure. (I do check them to make sure none are going bad…). When they are cured, If they’re soft neck, braid away.
If they’re hard neck (what I always raise), you can cut the tops and the hairy roots off and store them inside. I actually put mine in a big tray and shove the tray under the dresser in my sewing room.
The temperature is moderate in this room (I keep the thermostat at 62 in the winter) and the light is dim under the dresser. My garlic seems to keep perfectly there.
NOTE: check the cloves about every 6 weeks, especially if there is any aroma of “garlic” wafting through the air. If you can smell the garlic, it means one of the bulbs is probably going bad. If you leave it in the general population, it may turn other heads bad, as well.
Save 8 to 10 bulbs of your garlic for planting in October and November and enjoy the rest, all winter and spring.