Of everything we grow in the vegetable garden the only item used in the kitchen with greater frequency than fresh garlic, is onion.  From salad dressings to soups, to breads, and baked dishes, there are a myriad of uses for garlic in the Curbstone Valley kitchen.  We simply couldn’t be without it.

'California Early White' Garlic (click any image to enlarge)

Although we’d usually purchase garlic from local area Farmer’s Markets, last October we planted our own, with the hope of having more than enough to get us through the year.

The greatest downside to growing garlic is the loss of valuable vegetable garden real estate.

Garlic in early March 2011

Garlic takes 8-10 months to mature in the garden, taking up space that could potentially house a number of alternate crops in the same period of time.  As such, when planting your own garlic it’s important to plan ahead to ensure the garlic isn’t planted in a bed that’s needed in early spring.

As this was the first crop of garlic grown at Curbstone Valley, we planted two varieties of softneck garlic this season, ‘California Early White’, and ‘California Late White’.  Neither are particularly special or unique varieties, but both are known to grow well here, and store well.

Yesterday we harvested the Early White garlic we planted in October

Depsite an excessively wet spring, our first garlic harvest at Curbstone Valley is looking great so far. 

By early May the garlic was taking over the planting bed

We’re growing garlic in raised beds, in richly amended, fertile, loose and free-draining soils.  What we don’t have control over though, is the weather.  This last weekend we were assaulted with almost three inches of rain, practically unheard of in this area in June.  That much rain, so close to the garlic harvest, can create a number of problems, especially if the soils are less than ideal. 

After the last rain we noticed some minor rust on some of the leaves

We were lucky however. Despite a minor outbreak of rust (Puccinia allii) on a few of the leaves due to our strange spring weather, the garlic otherwise seems unscathed.  The rain however did push up our garlic harvest, as we were concerned about leaving the bulbs in damp soil this close to harvest, and wanted to remove the affected plants to prevent the rust from spreading to our other garlic crop.

As such, yesterday afternoon, in between being bombarded by a few grumpy bees, I managed to bring in the first of our ‘California Early White’ this season.

Our first garlic bulb of the season

There’s no hard and fast rule for when to harvest garlic, but there is a fine line between harvesting too early (where the bulbs haven’t matured), and harvesting too late (where the bulbs are too large and don’t store well).  An average guide is to harvest when 40% of the leaves have browned, but it’s also important to remember that water stress, and disease, can result in browning leaves.  I prefer to pull the soil away from a few bulbs and assess the size of the bulb, and the tautness of the outer skin before committing to harvesting.

Pulling back the soil at the crown you can assess bulb size and outer skin tension. If the skin is too loose around the outer cloves, you've waited too long

When in doubt, it’s usually best to harvest early rather than late, as garlic that is harvested too late won’t store as well.

I prefer to harvest the garlic by hand to avoid bruising, or slicing, the bulbs.  Pulling the soil away from the crown, I work my hands under the roots, and then lift the bulb up out of the soil from the base.  It’s important not to pull the plants by the leaves, as these need to remain attached during the drying and curing process.  They both help to return energy to the bulb, but also prevent bacteria from entering the top of the bulb while drying.

'California Early White' Garlic

The majority of these ‘Early White’ bulbs were beautiful, and of a good size, and a few were veritable monsters.  Despite the small amount of rust, the behemoths will likely be saved as planting stock for the fall.  Controlled studies have shown that cloves from infected plants did not result in rust developing in the subsequent crop [1].  However, crop rotation, and disposal of affected leaf litter will be important to prevent overwintering, and reinfection.

A few puny heads of garlic were in the bunch too, but those we’ll simply use first, maybe roasted, and their tiny cloves squeezed onto fresh slices of hot crusty French bread, with a little butter and chive…oh, sorry…the harvest.

The smaller bulbs, like this one, will be used first. The largest of the harvest will be saved for replanting in the fall.

Harvesting the garlic is only half of the process.  To store garlic, it first must be dried and cured.  The loose soil is brushed from the cloves, and the garlic is hung to dry.  As I opted for a greenhouse rather than a shed in the garden, finding space to dry the garlic was a slight challenge.  It’s not advisable to ‘sun dry’ garlic.  This tends to alter the flavor of garlic, and can actually sunburn the outer cloves, imparting an excessive bitterness to the cloves.  A cool, dry, shaded area, either inside, or outside if the weather is dry (and secure from browsing wildlife), is all that’s needed.

Our cobbled together garlic drying racks are re-purposed seed tray holders, the ones with the larger format holes, just large enough to pass the garlic leaves through, but small enough to support the bulb heads.

These open weave seed tray holders make excellent garlic bulb holders for drying

We have them in assorted sizes and shapes here, but using these we can ensure that the heads are exposed to plenty of air circulation all the way around, and as a result there should be minimal risk of mold or rotting cloves as they dry. 

We turn the trays upside down, and slide the leaves through the holes so the heads are supported at the top

 So now we wait for 3-4 weeks for the garlic to thoroughly dry.  During drying and storage we’ll routinely check the bulbs for evidence of mold or bacterial rot, and discard any showing signs of disease. 

Once cured and dry, if I’m feeling brave and creative, perhaps I’ll try my hand at crafting my first garlic braid.

The leaves hang below while the garlic dries and cures

If you plan to plant garlic this fall, most vendors have seed garlic for sale beginning in September, but many vendors sell out quickly, especially of the more popular varieties.  If you need seed garlic for fall planting, I’d recommend pre ordering stock in late summer to ensure you have the variety you need for fall planting.

Stored garlic should be checked for mold and disease, and discarded

Be sure to order certified disease free stock to avoid introducing pathogens into the garden, and always rotate garlic crops in the garden with non-allium crops for at least three years to reduce the build up of soil-borne pests.

In about a month, with favorable weather, we should be harvesting our ‘California Late White’ garlic too!


[1] Koike ST, Smith RF, Davis, et al. 2001. Characterization and Control of Garlic Rust in California.  Plant Dis 85:585-91.