One vegetable I have not had to purchase in several years is garlic. Every fall, without fail, I place an order. I like to try different varieties, so I split a bigger order with a couple of other green thumbs and then divvy it up. I think one of the best things about growing garlic is you get two harvests! But a key thing to note if you’re new to growing it, is when to harvest garlic—and those delicious garlic scapes that come sooner in the season.
I usually spread my garlic crop out over a couple of my raised beds. If I still need space, I’ll pop a few extra here and there in an ornamental garden. Jessica has written a great article about the differences between hardneck and softneck garlic. Another great resource is a book written a few years ago by Canadian author Liz Primeau called In Pursuit of Garlic.
Before we talk about when to harvest garlic, let’s first discuss how to harvest garlic scapes and ensure they don’t go to waste!
When to harvest garlic scapes
Garlic scapes usually start to make their appearance on hardneck garlic sometime in June (this may differ if you’re in a different zone). Not all of my varieties are always ready at the same time, which is nice because I can harvest in batches and enjoy them for longer.
Garlic scapes are easy to discern from the rest of the plant because they kind of look like green onions with a long elf hat (the bulbil) at the end. You’ll know your scapes are ready to pick when they form a spiral. Simply cut the scape (I use my herb scissors) at the base where it comes out of the stalk. If the scapes become straight, after they’ve gone through their curling phase, they’re past their prime. They’ll be tougher than a younger fresh scape and taste bitter.
Once I have a handful of scapes, I usually whip them into garlic scape pesto (some of which I’ll freeze in ice cube trays). I snip off the elf hats and simply use the stalk. If you don’t cut your scapes and leave them on the plant, the bulbils turn into flowers and seeds. Even if you don’t intend to eat your garlic scapes, it’s still a good idea to snip them at the base of their stalk so that all the energy can go back into growing the bulb underground.
When to harvest garlic
After you cut the garlic scapes, you have about month or so until the garlic itself is ready. A few years ago, when I was writing an article for another publication, I interviewed a gentleman from PEI by the name of Al Picketts who has a company called Eureka Garlic. I discovered him after reading about the black garlic he grows, but that’s a whole other topic. But I did ask him when is garlic ready to harvest because timing is everything.
Al explained that he uses a calendar to determine when to pull his own crops—for example, he always harvests Turban garlic on July 25. But because we all live in different gardening zones and various climates, in general, he says to look for two dead, dry leaves at the base of the plant, with a third leaf that is starting to die.
“The first leaf may be hard to see as it could be eaten up already by the soil bacteria,” he explains. “When it is time to harvest, there will still be plenty of green leaves, but don’t let this stop you. The reason for harvesting at the right time is because the bulb is wrapped with leaves. When a leaf dies, the soil bacteria eat it. This leaf will disappear not only above ground but also below.”
This is the rule of thumb I’ve been following for over 10 years.
How to harvest garlic
The best way to remove a garlic bulb depends on the variety you’ve planted. For Turban, Artichoke, and Silverskin varieties, you might want to use a pitch fork or spade—being careful not to touch the bulb. I usually pull my hardneck varieties, like Rocambole and Porcelain, because the talks are usually super-thick and sturdy.
Sometimes the soil and bulbs need a little coaxing. I’ve found that when I mulch my raised bed with straw in the fall, the soil is much looser than if I just leave the bed exposed for the winter. By the time the garlic is ready to be pulled, it can sometimes have become more hard-packed.
Without a winter mulch, I’ve found myself before with a broken stalk in my hand and a clove of garlic still hiding beneath the soil. But you also want to make sure you don’t bruise or break the bulb beneath the soil. Bruising affects the storage life.
I usually take my jumbo trowel or a bigger spade and well away from the bulb, I gently try to lift the soil beneath it. Usually this nudges the bulb up a bit, loosening the soil enough for me to pull the stalk. I gently remove excess dirt, again being careful not to bruise the bulb.
What if you pull garlic too early?
It’s sometimes hard to know if a smaller head of garlic will keep growing, even if the bottom three leaves have died away. There is a rapid growth stage just before garlic is ready to harvest, so a few days could make a significant difference. But then sometimes a bulb is just going to be runty no matter what.
Keeping squirrels away from your garlic
Even if though they don’t like garlic, squirrels seem to have special radar for disturbed garden soil. I’ve gone out to the garden to find a perfectly good clove laying on top of the soil. I find the layer of straw mulch helps to deter them. I’ve also taken to lightly sprinkling hen manure over the site after I’ve planted, as well.
How do you dry and store garlic?
Curing garlic basically means drying it out. You want lots of air flow and a cool place to cure it. Drying racks are great to have because you can use them for other veggies and herbs, too. I made my own drying rack out of screen stapled to a scrap wood frame. I place it on a stack of bricks or buckets in my garage so air flows underneath. In years past, I’ve also hung my garlic in bunches, secured by twine around the stalks, in the garage. You can braid the stalks to store, as well.
After my garlic has dried, I’ll “clean” it by gently removing dirt and debris, and perhaps one outer dried layer, over a bucket. I’ll trim the long stalk off, so I have a clove like what you’d see at the grocery store. I used to store my bulbs in a flat-bottomed bowl until I saw Jessica’s clever storage idea in her video where she places them in empty egg cartons.