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You planted your garlic last fall and waited patiently all winter long. Now that spring has arrived, you may be wondering: what is my garlic up to?
How to Care for Garlic
Garlic is a low maintenance addition to the garden; between planting and harvesting, they really need minimal care. Once the threat of frost has passed, remove all straw from your garlic beds. As soon as green shoots emerge, top dress your garlic beds with organic fertilizer or a bit of compost. Garlic doesn't enjoy a lot of competition for space; keep those weeds in check! From spring through early summer, water garlic regularly and thoroughly. Approximately 2-3 weeks prior to harvest (mid-June, or so) stop watering; too much moisture at harvest time can lead to bulb rot.
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.
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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.