Living on the Earth: Harvesting Garlic

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published as part of the Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future series on July 25, 1997, but the story is timeless. It will certainly inspire some of us to pick up “seed garlic” from a local farmer or farmers’ market and start our own garlic crop in the backyard, community garden or farm. We’ll have wonderful garlic scapes in the spring, then spring garlic or cured garlic to look forward to.

by Bill Duesing

Freshly harvested garlic. Photo courtesy of Bill Duesing
Freshly harvested garlic. Photo courtesy of Bill Duesing.

We harvested our garlic this week. Over a three day period, between rainstorms, Suzanne and I pulled up five long beds full of these sturdy plants with strappy blue green leaves, as mockingbirds sang in a nearby apple tree. It was enjoyable work. The fluffy soil allowed the bulbs to be lifted out easily, their purple and white beauty showing through the dirt. After shaking and brushing off the dark, well-composted soil that was clinging to the roots, we put the garlic in bushel baskets. A nearly intoxicating aroma surrounded us.

By the time we were done, we had hundreds of pounds of garlic. We are very
pleased with the quantity and quality of this year’s crop.

Beds of young garlic are a welcome sight in the early springs. Photo courtesy of Bill Duesing
Beds of young garlic are a welcome sight in the early spring. Photo courtesy of Bill Duesing.

Harvest time for garlic is critical. Each of the long leaves, which wraps around the stem at its base, becomes a wrapper for the bulb of garlic under the soil. The number of green leaves remaining on the plant indicates how many layers remain on the bulb. If all the leaves dry up while the plant is in the soil, all the wrappers disappear. If they dry after harvest, however, each one leaves another tough layer of protection around the bulb. Three to five bulb wrappers are suggested for best storage, and, since a wrapper or two may be lost in harvesting and cleaning, we harvest when there are about six leaves remaining on most of the plants. The garlic should stay in the ground as long as possible, but if too many layers of wrapper dry up before harvest, the spaces between the cloves are open to invasion by soil bacteria and fungi, which can cause rot.

It is important to get the freshly-picked bulbs into the shade immediately and to hang them in an airy place so they dry quickly and evenly.

Garlic hangs from the rafters to cure, protected from the light. Photos courtesy of Bill Duesing
Garlic tied in bundles hangs from the rafters, in the shade, so they dry evenly. Photo courtesy of Bill Duesing.

Our garlic now hangs from the rafters in the breezeway, tied in bundles of ten bulbs. It will be just fine there until fall, when we plant cloves from the medium-sized bulbs. What’s left we store in a dry place where it won’t freeze
during the winter. Sometimes we cut off the tops and sometimes we don’t.
Garlic keeps very well when it’s been harvested at the right time and cured properly. Given these conditions, it will store nearly a whole year.

For best results, it's good to plant garlic which originates in your region. Photo courtesy of Bill Duesing
For best results, it's good to plant garlic which originates in your region. Photo courtesy of Bill Duesing.

Garlic is a very easy crop to grow. We stuck cloves from last year’s harvest
into fertile garden beds in late October and mulched them thickly with hay.
During the winter the cloves grew strong root systems. The hay kept most weeds from growing, but let the young, pointed garlic leaves poke through easily this spring. In April and May, while we were working so hard to get other crops established, the garlic, large and vigorous, was quite an inspiration. In late spring we did a bit of weeding. In June, we snapped off the flower buds in order to direct more energy to the bulbs below.

We eat lots of garlic because of its wonderful flavor. It’s delicious with
pasta and greens, in fresh tomato sauces, and with eggs, potatoes or beans.
We’ll reserve at least seven bulbs a week for us to eat, and about half of the
harvest for planting this fall. The rest, mostly the biggest bulbs, we’ll sell
at the farmers’ markets where the hardneck variety has become increasingly
popular over the years.

Garlic or allium sativum, is a local crop. It adapts to the local soil and does well when it is replanted in the same space in the garden for several
years. For best results, it’s good to plant garlic which originates in your
region. We started with bulbs from New York State, and have replanted this
strain here for six years.

For at least 10,000 years, humans have enjoyed garlic. From ancient China,
Egypt and India, through Biblical times and Greek and Roman cultures, down to the present, people have used garlic to treat a variety of illnesses including cancer, heart disease and leprosy, as well as infected wounds and dysentery.

Modern research shows that garlic is a powerful antibiotic, provides at least
three beneficial effects for the heart, helps eliminate lead and other toxic
heavy metals from the body, has anti-tumor properties, and is useful in treating leprosy and AIDS. It’s our garlic’s wonderful flavor, however, that keeps us growing and eating it, and keeps our customers coming back for more.

You can grow some garlic, too. Look for nice bulbs at a local farmers’ market, hang it up until fall and then plant it when you set out other bulbs like daffodils and tulips. Next July you’ll harvest your own and will have started an exciting, healthful and flavorful adventure.

(C) 1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491. Reprinted with permission.

Bill Duesing is an organic farmer, author, environmental artist and Executive Director of the Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (CT NOFA). Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection of essays Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14 postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.

1 thought on “Living on the Earth: Harvesting Garlic”

  1. Loved reading about your garlic and since I have been growing a very small patch here in the Seattle WA. area, I was wondering could you recomend any particular type for this area I am not sure of the type I have they were given to me a couple years ago by a friend and can you tell me the soil I should use or were to find out thanks again for your article.

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