Your garlic cloves went in the ground last October, grew through winter and spring, and now that it’s July, they’re ready to be plucked from the garden, right? Well, ready-ish.
Garlic is one of those things where timing is everything, and the harvest period can span from late spring through late summer, depending on the weather and the variety of garlic grown. But since the bulbs are all underground, how can you really tell when your garlic is ripe for the pickin’?
The short answer is: It’s all in the leaves.
But don’t be fooled by its allium cousin, the onion. When onions have stopped growing, their leaves begin to lose color and wilt. The tops will dry up and flop over, signaling the time to harvest. Most onion bulbs have pushed themselves out of the soil and it’s easy to see whether they’ve fully matured.
Garlic bulbs, on the other hand, remain below ground during development. Each leaf above ground indicates a layer of protective paper wrapped around the bulb. A garlic plant with 10 green leaves, for example, will have 10 layers of bulb wrappers.
While there’s no standard number of leaves that garlic should have, a reliable harvest indicator is when half the leaves have died off, and half are still green. The leaves start to die off from the bottom up. When most of your crop has reached this stage, stop watering for at least a week and allow the soil to dry out a bit to prevent rot and make harvesting easier.
It’s a good idea to lightly dig into the soil around the bulb (taking care not to damage any of the wrappers or cloves) and check its size without digging the whole thing up. If the bulb looks small, pat the soil back down and wait a few days before you check again. If the bulb looks substantial, the wrappers tight, and the cloves well-formed, it’s ready to be pulled.
Just don’t wait until all the leaves have died back before harvesting. Without the bulb wrappers protecting the garlic head, the cloves may separate and the garlic won’t store well. Over-ripened bulbs also tend to divide and form shoots from each clove (looking like a Siamese twins version of garlic… but still edible, as I’ve found from experience!).
At harvest time, carefully loosen the soil around your bulbs and pull the garlic out from the base of its stem, at its neck. Brush off any excess dirt that falls off easily but do not wash your garlic or remove the bulb wrappers.
If you plan to eat your garlic right away, trim off the leaves and roots for cleaner storage in the kitchen. But if you want to prepare your garlic for long-term storage, keep the leaves and roots intact while you cure your crop.
Generally, Asiatic and Turban varieties of garlic mature first in the season (as early as May in some areas); Silverskins mature last (in July). There can be a six to eight-week span between the time the earliest garlics are ready to when the latest-maturing garlics are pulled from the ground.
I planted Ajo Rojo (a Creole garlic) and Siciliano (an Artichoke garlic) last October in my hardiness zone 10b garden, and both were harvested about two weeks apart in late May and early June. It was my first time growing garlic, and there’s nothing quite like the taste of spicy garlic freshly dug from the ground!