In our area, summer is garlic harvesting time, but the real question is, “When in summer?”
Harvesting time is determined by the variety you grew, growing conditions — soil quality, watering, weeding — and the weather more than it’s determined by a date on the calendar, but in our area, it’s usually August.
Planted in the fall, garlic sets its roots before it goes dormant in winter but starts the serous business of growing in spring. Given our capricious spring weather, it’s hard to know the countdown to maturity.
Harvest too soon and the bulbs will be undersized with a thin outer covering. Harvest too late and the bulbs will have started to break open and won’t keep well.
That clove you planted in the fall, now turning into a full-size bulb of garlic, is carefully tucked away underground, so watch for external clues.
Toward the end of the maturing process, you will notice those nice green tops above ground starting to turn a yellowish brown at the base and fall over. For once, that is a good thing. Once this starts, cut back on watering, and as the tops decline further, stop watering altogether to help with curing.
When the top half is green, with the tips starting to brown, and the bottom half is brown, it’s ready. To check, carefully dig up a bulb with your hands or a spade or trowel, keeping it a couple of inches away from the plant. Shake the loose soil from the roots, and if the bulb is full of distinct cloves and a covering, it is ready to be harvested.
Harvest all of your garlic at once and take some to the kitchen. To prepare the bulbs for storage, air-cure them in a well-ventilated but dark, dry place for three to four weeks until the outer skins are papery and the stems are bone dry all the way through. To achieve this, hang them singly or lay them out on a wire screen, slatted wood pallet or clothes drying rack arranged so that air circulates over and under. With a soft brush, gently brush off the bulk of the dirt clinging to the bulb and again later when the bulb has dried more.
Once cured, trim the roots and neck off with a pair of scissors, and keep the bulbs well ventilated by hanging or storing the bulk in mesh bags in a temperate place. Never keep garlic in the refrigerator but rather on your kitchen counter in a garlic container, as needed. How long garlic will store depends on the variety and conditions but think six months or longer, with soft neck varieties generally hanging in the longest.
Pay attention to varieties that do better in cold climates, but there is a wonderful wide range of garlics to taste test from specialty growers.
We can thank an adventurous forager in Asia who some 6,000 years ago dug up a green shoot to discover the first garlic bulb. Revered by many cultures, garlic now is recognized as an essential staple in the best cooks’ kitchens.
Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.