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Planting and Harvesting Garlic

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Garlic Collection: This collection of easy-to-grow, organic garlic is perfect for growing in a small garden. It includes at least a half pound of garlic, two heads each of hardneck and softneck varieties, which will produce enough garlic for an average family of four.

Colorful Garlic Grow Bag: Pictured, above. Holds 18 to 24 cloves.

Garlic Press and Slicer: 2-in-1 tool minces and slices garlic

Garlic Roaster: The easiest way to make gourmet, fire-roasted garlic.

Garlic is one of the easiest crops you can grow. The only tricky part is that in most regions of the country, garlic is planted in the fall for harvest the following summer. Planting should occur about 4 to 6 weeks before the ground freezes. By that time many summer crops have already been harvested, leaving behind some free garden space. Just remember that the space where you plant garlic won't be available for another type of crop until late next summer.

Planting Garlic

In most parts of the country, late fall is the best time of year to plant garlic. The cloves establish roots before the ground freezes and when spring comes the plants are ready to charge out of the ground. Bulbs usually mature by late July.

Garlic

If you're replanting garlic from your own stock, choose the biggest and best heads from last summer's harvest.

Here in Vermont it's easy to tell when the garlic should be planted. Look up at the hillsides. If they're a blaze of red, orange and yellow, it's time. I'm always saying how easy it is to plant garlic. Now I have some photos to prove it (see slideshow). Planting enough garlic to last 12 months took me an hour. I might put in a few minutes weeding in early June, and I usually spend about 10 minutes cutting off the flower heads when they appear in early July. But, other than that, there's nothing to do until the heads are ready to harvest

Here in northern Vermont, hardiness zones 4/5, we wait for the hillsides to signal that it's garlic-planting time. The bigger the clove you plant, the bigger the head you'll harvest. If you're replanting garlic from your own stock, choose the biggest and best heads from last summer's harvest. And also use up any heads with cloves that are starting to separate. I select and replant the biggest and best cloves each year. At this point, the cloves are almost as big as elephant garlic. When following recipes, I figure one of these cloves is equal to three regular size cloves. For the first part of the season, this bed had tomatoes and peppers in it. To prepare it for garlic, I loosened the soil with a fork, added granular organic fertilizer and lime, and raked it smooth. I'll use about 20 feet of this bed for the garlic. I plant 120 cloves each year. This may sound like a lot, but it ensures that I have plenty for my own use, enough to plant next year's crop, and extras to share. I like to plant the cloves 8" on center. This means I can fit four cloves across this 33" wide bed. I've taken to using a 1x6 board to ensure correct spacing, making x-marks on each long side with a marker. I get all the cloves placed on the soil surface first, then go back to the beginning and start planting. Here's a really slick technique. The soil in the bed has to be very loose to make it work. Mine is, because I took the time to loosen it with a garden fork to a depth of about 8 inches. On my knees, I now insert a hand fork under each clove and gently lift the soil … … then push the clove down into the soil until the knuckles on the top of my hand are even with the soil surface. I do this lift-and-press routine down the entire bed. It takes about five minutes to get them all in. If you look close, you can just barely see the tips of the cloves. All cloves in. The cloves are just deep enough that I can rake lightly over the surface of the bed without dislodging them. Because the soil is so fluffy, rain will gradually compress it around the cloves and snuggle them into the correct depth. Garlic planted. Start to finish, about an hour. I couldn't help lifting the fabric on the bed next door to reveal the bounty. Front to back there's bush beans, cilantro, spinach, lettuce, arugula, more spinach and some baby kale. Oct. 11, zone 4.
Photos: Kathy LaLiberte

Harvesting Garlic

Determining when garlic is ready to harvest is one of the trickiest parts about growing it. If you harvest too soon the cloves will be small and underdeveloped (certainly usable but not as big and plump as possible). If you wait too long, as the heads dry the cloves will begin to separate and the head won’t be tight and firm (also not a disaster, but the cloves will be more vulnerable to decay and drying out so they won't store as long).

Though it depends somewhat on the growing season and where you live, garlic is usually ready to harvest in late July. The slideshow below, with photos from my own garden, shows what to watch for. Properly curing the heads is also important and you'll see that as well.

This bed of garlic is ready to harvest. Some leaves are beginning to yellow. You could leave them a bit longer, but if the soil is wet, you risk having the papery wraps around the cloves begin to deteriorate. Unlike onions, garlic bulbs develop several inches below the soil surface. Lift the bulbs from the soil by getting under them with a garden fork. The bulbs have been in the ground for eight months and the soil around them often gets pretty compacted. Freshly harvested: about eight and a half months after planting. This year's garlic right after harvesting. Shake or brush most of the soil off the bulbs but don't wash them. The drier the better. I grow 100 heads of garlic each year. That's because I use lots of it in the kitchen and also because I give away a fair amount to friends and family. I'll need to replant 100 cloves this fall for next year's crop and that will use up about 20-25 heads. From the garden, the plants go into the barn. I lay them on an old sheet and make sure there's plenty of room for air to circulate around the heads. A porch or attic works, too. Darkness is best, but as long as they're not in direct sunlight (which can make the tissues turn green) and it's not hot enough to damage the tissues (I've had this happen) they'll be OK. Three weeks after harvest, the necks have withered and the papery exteriors have tightened over the cloves. This is what you don't want. A head that's puckered and lumpy with a softened neck. Use it immediately because it will not store. A nice, dry head after 4 weeks of curing. The bulbs can be considered fully cured and ready for storage once the necks are almost completely dry. This is "hard neck" garlic and it takes longer for the neck to get completely dry than it does for "soft neck" garlic. You can see here that the neck is still green inside. Probably OK, but would be better to let these cure another week or two before trimming. You want the cloves inside to be completely sealed off from outside air — green tissues can still conduct bacteria or fungus into the cloves. Once the papery exterior and stem are good and dry, you can trim all but about an inch of stem. I usually trim off most of the roots because the bulbs are cleaner to handle in the kitchen. Here's the prize: cured, trimmed and ready to be stored in my cool, dark, dry basement.
Photos: Kathy LaLiberte

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