It is always a delicate balance between allowing the garlic to mature to their fullest and going too far.
Lifting the garlic too early will result in undersized bulbs that won’t store well. Harvesting too late and you risk the bulbs splitting through their skins leaving them unprotected and unable to withstand long term storage.
I like to wait until at least the two lower leaves turn brown before harvesting. Each leaf indicates a layer of protective paper wrapped around the bulb. For example, a garlic plant with 8 leaves will have 8 layers of bulb wrappers. The leaves grow from the bottom up, so the ones at the bottom are older and begin to brown first as the bulb reaches maturity. Stop watering the garlic bed when the leaves begin turning brown and wait for a dry period to dig up the bulbs.
I use a digging fork to carefully loosen the soil beneath the bulbs, then pull them up by their stalks and shake off the soil. I grow hardneck garlic and the stalks are pretty solid. If you grow softneck varieties, you want to dig the bulbs out carefully as pulling from the stalks may tear them. Try not to bruise the bulbs.
After harvesting, the garlic is spread out in the shade to dry a bit before bringing it into the basement to cure. We run a dehumidifier in the basement in the summer and I discovered that this is the perfect environment or curing garlic. It is dark, cool, and dry. Alternatively, garlic can be hung in bundles in a ventilated shed or barn as long as there is good airflow and protection from direct sunlight.
Curing allows the layers to dry out forming a protective cover around the bulb. Curing can take a month or more, depending on the humidity level.
When the garlic is fully cured and all the foliage is dry and crunchy, I like to take the bundles back outside to trim and clean up the bulbs. The stems are cut cleanly an inch or two from the bulb. The cut area is inspected carefully to be sure the garlic has cured completely. There should be no green at the center. The roots are trimmed and the bulb is brushed with my fingers to release any additional soil still clinging to the papery skin. Sometimes, the outer wrapper flakes off. This is ok, but I try not to damage the protective wrappers any further than the first layer.
The trimmed bulbs are stored loosely in a basket in a cool, dark, and dry location. Come fall, the basket is pulled out and the largest bulbs with the largest cloves are selected and planted for the following year (See How to Plant Garlic in Fall). The rest of the cured bulbs are enjoyed all winter. Different strains and varieties of garlic have different storage lives, Our garlic usually lasts until April before it begins to sprout.
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