by Catherine Haug, August 14, 2009
July 30, 2013 update: Added paragraph in “When to Lift the Bulbs” under the subheading “Watch the leaves or scapes” on my experience with determining when it is time to dig the bulbs.
September 18, 2011 Update: Added paragraph in “Sow Cloves for Next Year” section on why I don’t recommend using grocery store garlic for the garden.
August 15, 2009 Update: Added new section on recommended Varieties for the Flathead (at the end of the article), at the request of Barbara .
I planted hardneck (or stiffneck) garlic cloves last fall (from my CSA bounty), on September 28, at the suggestion of Zena P. I think the variety is ‘Spanish Roja.’ Garlic is such a tasty and important crop from a health standpoint. A crop many of us would find it difficult to do without, when foods can no longer be trucked into our valley from distant farms. And it’s so easy to grow!
All 16 of my cloves came up in early spring and started growing green shoots and leaves. Toward the end of June, I harvested most of the scapes (the loopy things with a bulbous growth, called the bulbil, near the tip), but left 2 scapes to grow, so I could observe what happens with the blossom and bulbils that form later in the summer. I read in the literature that only the hardneck varieties form a scape.
The scapes are delicious! Slice them up into short or long lengths and add to a stir-fry for a light garlic flavor, or steam as you would asparagus.
The next harvest is to lift the mature bulbs from underground. Save some of the cloves to plant for next year’s crop.
Here are some tips I’ve culled from the web. If you have additional tips, send them to me (cat(at)essentialstuff.org; email disguised) and I’ll add to this post.
Early Summer: Harvest Scapes (Flowers)
This year I harvested my scapes on June 29. They never really made loops, they just curled a bit. But Jean H.’s scapes made two clean loops, about 3 inches or less in diameter; she planted a different variety of garlic.
Trim them off the plant where the scape stem separates from the leaves. If part of this is too woody, cut it off, but retain at least several inches below the bulbil.
Mother Earth News suggests harvesting the scapes when they first appear, for maximum tenderness and flavor. (8)
Mid-Summer: Prepare to Harvest the Bulbs
Start preparing to harvest about a month ahead of the actual date that the bulbs are lifted. Then another two weeks will pass before the cured garlic is put away in storage.
After scape removal in June, the underground bulbs start to swell and grow quickly over the next month. The plants will transfer energy from the leaves to the bulbs. Little special care is needed during this phase, except watering during the latter part of June during a dry year.
The Garlic Farm (2) advises that you stop watering around the first of July, to let the bulbs mature. This is difficult for me because this year I planted my second crop of lettuce seeds next to the maturing garlic…lesson learned for next year.
When to Lift (Dig) the Bulbs
The bulbs will be ready to be dug between the first week of July through the middle of August, depending on variety and strain. And this is a bit tricky, as lifting too early will give undersize bulbs that don’t store well, and a few days too late will result in bulbs lacking the protective wrappers around the cloves. The Garlic Farm suggests you have about a 3 – 7 day window in which to harvest successfully. (2)
Watch the leaves or scapes
The green leaves start to die from the bottom up. When the bottom 3 or 4 leaves are dead, and the top 5 or 6 are still green, it’s time to lift the bulbs. If not sure, dig one or two and check. A mature bulb is fully swelled, well sized, and has some partially decomposed wrappers. (2)
In my experience, the leaves start to turn yellow-brown at the tips, an indicator to stop watering; for me this happens around mid July. Then watch carefully for when those leaves are mostly yellow-brown, and dig up the one that has the most dry color and inspect for maturity. I usually plant 2-3 varieties of hard necks and one variety of softnecks, and each variety matures at different times. I believe that if I am quiet and patient, the cloves will ‘talk’ to me and tell me when they are ready (I feel pulled to the garlic bed, with an urgent need to dig), and this has never failed me.
You can also watch the scapes (if you didn’t trim them off). They will straighten and stiffen, when the bulbs are ready to harvest.(5) Mine did this; it’s so fascinating!
Lift the bulbs
Pick a dry day for harvesting.
Dig and lift carefully, as garlic is very fragile to rough treatment such as bumping. Even the smallest bump will bruise it. Carefully lift with your fingers or a garden fork, keeping bulb, stem and leaves in-tact. Quickly move bulbs to a shady spot to avoid burning in the sun. (2)
If you lift by pulling up on the stalk, you may pull it off! I found the best way for my hardneck garlic: I dug down to the bulb with my fingers, then moved soil away all around the bulb. Then I gently pulled on the stalk at an angle until the roots released. Sometimes I needed to help by removing more soil around the bulb. I did not need to use a tool, which I was afraid would nick my bulbs.
Clean the bulbs
Gently brush off sandy soil. Clay soil will need to be rinsed off, but it’s best to avoid rinsing because you want the bulbs to dry during curing, not take on more water. Trim roots to 1/4 inch long, and clean soil off the roots. (2)
It’s best NOT to trim off the stalk and leaves until after curing. Garlic stores longer if the leaves are left on the plant during curing. Note that leaving the stalk and leaves on a hardneck variety means they will take up a lot of space.
Cure the bulbs
Your bulbs will need at least 2 weeks to cure and prepare for storage (The Garlic Farm recommends 2 weeks; Irish Eyes says 3 – 4 weeks). Either hang 10 or so together, or lay on a mesh so that air can circulate, in an airy, well-ventilated area such as a carport or drying shed. (2,10)
I have a removable screen-door panel for my back door. Since the weather is cool now anyway, I removed that panel and braced it up on some boxes in my garage, then laid my cleaned and trimmed bulbs on the screen, leaving at least a 1-inch space between each, so air can circulate. And I’m keeping my garage door open for ventilation. If it weren’t rainy right now, I’d set up this apparatus out in a shady spot of my yard.
Storing the bulbs
After curing, trim to remove the stalks (unless you want to braid them; remember that hardneck varieties do not braid well). Either hang in storage containers (such as a net bag), or braid for hanging. Hang bags or braids in a cool, dry space. 33° – 35° F, or 60° – 70° F, with 65 – 70% humidity is best. Between these temperatures, such as in a 40° – 50° F refrigerator is not recommended, as it will stimulate unwanted growth. (2,5)
NOTE: The best time to braid garlic is before it has finished curing; you need the stalks for the braid. Softneck varieties are best for braiding; hardneck varieties do not braid well. (2,5)
Save some cloves for planting in the fall, for next year’s crop.
If your stored bulbs start showing green shoots, it’s time to freeze them (assuming electricity is still available): peel the cloves and put in a freezer bag whole (don’t slice, chop or mince the individual cloves). Pull out cloves as you need them. While they may become a bit translucent, they will retain all of their flavor, and, if minced or pressed while still semi-frozen, they will retain their crunchiness. (9)
Sow Cloves for Next Year
Start with garlic from a trusted seed source or from a friend’s garden (or your own garden in future years). I would not advise using store-bought garlic:
- Much of this garlic has been treated with chemicals to retard sprouting. These cloves may sprout and grow green stalk and leaves, but will either not form bulbs (clusters of cloves), or the cloves will be underdeveloped.
- Store-bought garlic is typically a softneck variety and not as flavorful as the hardnecks, and doesn’t grow those prized large cloves.
Planting is best done in the fall, before frost. Early October is best in our area, but any time between September 15 and October 15 should be OK (5).
Carefully crack each bulb into cloves. Since small cloves grow into small bulbs, choose only the largest cloves for planting. Here are some don’ts:
- Don’t trim off the papers.
- Don’t plant any clove with nicks or other damage, as this will invite disease.
- Don’t plant in same spot that garlic or onions were grown in the previous two years, to minimize disease.
Following guidelines for your variety, dig a hole about 2 – 5 inches deep. Set one clove in the hole with the tip up (root down). Then cover with about 1 – 4 inches of soil. Repeat for each clove, placing them about 4 inches apart.
Mulching is important, to insulate from mid-winter thaws and resulting winterkill. Wait until November, after a good hard frost, before mulching with straw.
In the early spring when the green shoots start to appear, carefully move the mulch away from the shoots to enable faster thawing yet preserve moisture. (3,4,5)
See also Growing Garlic in Montana (pdf file from MSU Extension) for more information. Note that this document gives non-Organic advice for fertilization.
Another good resource for Montana is Montana Gourmet Garlic, of Stevensville. They have an excellent article on Planting (and Growing) Garlic (9).
Varieties for the Flathead
Barbara F. requested information on this topic, so I have begun my research.
There are two species of garlic: Allium Ophioscorodon (hardneck, or semi-wild) and Allium Sativum (softneck; does not produce a scape). Allium Ampeloprasm (elephant garlic) is not really garlic at all, but a variety of leek, that is less hardy than true garlic varieties.
Softneck varieties are not as winter hardy as hardneck, so may not do as well planted in the fall. Fall planting is recommended in our area, however, because our season is shorter than east of the divide. Fall planting allows for good root growth before the hardness of winter.
The MSU Extension article (5) says:
Softneck varieties for Montana:
“These garlic bulbs have necks so soft the harvested plants are easy to braid into a rope of bulbs. It is the strongest-flavored garlic and stores the best, but is slightly less winter hardy than the stiff-necked garlic.
Try the cultivars Dixon, Inchelium and New York White (‘Polish White’).”
Stiffneck varieties for Montana:
“[Stiffneck or hardneck garlic] produces a hard scape (stalk) that makes a 360 degree coil, then forms a cluster of bulblets at its tip. It is the most winter hardy garlic and milder in taste and easier to peel than the softnecked. Unfortunately, it is diffucult to braid because of the woody scape. …
‘Roja’, ‘German Extra-Hardy’, ‘Purple Italian’, and ‘Blue Italian’ should do well in your garden.”
“This popular garlic produces large bulbs up to 1/2 pound in size (under highly fertile conditions). Its cloves are mild-flavored and easy to peel, but the plant is the least winter hardy of the common garlics and the bulbs will not keep as long.”
Montana Gourmet Garlic, of Stevensville (9) has a definite bias for the more robust flavor and larger cloves of hardneck (stiffneck) varieties, but notes they store only about 4 – 6 months. Perhaps you would want to grow both hardneck and softneck to take advantage of the longer storage time of the latter. Softneck garlic is the kind you find in grocery stores.
They sell several varieties of hardneck garlic; since this is a western Montana business, I would assume all their varieties are good for our area. They include (2009):
- Rocambole: Spanish Roja, Sandpoint;
- Purple Stripe: Metechi, Khabar, Siberian, Chesnok Red,
- Porcelain: Romanian Red, Montana Music and Rosewood.
The Purple Stripe varieties are the only ones that have fertile bulbils, so if you want to try growing from seed the following year (rather than from cloves), choose a purple stripe variety. (9)
- gardenerd.com video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EIzZ3hAn9s