It's Time to Harvest Garlic

During my childhood, garlic’s only presence in my life was in a small red-topped McCormick container in my mother’s spice cabinet. My mother rarely used garlic in her cooking and I, a bland-food-loving child, probably would rather have done without it entirely. I grew up in Upstate South Carolina, and most of our meals were of the “meat and three vegetables” variety. Occasionally, we had spaghetti with sauce, hence the need for the garlic powder. I remember my amazement as a young adult when my parents informed me that they didn’t eat pizza and spaghetti until the 1960s; these then exotic foods were slow to arrive in SC and without them, most people didn’t need garlic.
Garlic curing on the garden cart in my shed

When my future husband and I began cooking meals together, I noticed that he had a large McCormick jar of garlic powder in his cabinet. He sprinkled it on many foods instead of only using it in spaghetti sauce; I guess I must have initially used some in self-defense against the odor. As I began to enjoy garlic and discovered cookbooks, I noticed that most recipes called for cloves of garlic instead of garlic powder. I disliked the laborious task of mincing garlic by hand and bought jarred minced garlic, but I didn’t like the taste, and bought a garlic press but I didn’t like the mess. Eventually, I discovered good chef’s knives and chopping boards that enable me to mince multiple cloves of garlic quickly.

I had dinner with friends the other night, and the wife of the couple wondered how I achieved a certain flavor in my cooking. I explained that I use a lot of garlic in many dishes, and she said she is trying to get her husband, who was also raised in the Upstate and whose mother’s experience with garlic was also probably of the garlic powder variety, to tolerate more garlic in his food. I am of the “If I cook for you, either eat it or starve,” mentality, which pertains to both children and husbands, and so I advised her to put it in and not tell him about the extra garlic since he eats my garlic-laden cooking; he is not one to eat something he dislikes to be polite.

In October and November of last year, I planted nearly 100 cloves of garlic. I broke apart the bulbs, and planted the individual cloves. Some of the larger bulbs come from an unnamed variety I saved from the previous year. The largest bulb so far, at about two inches in diameter, is a variety called Chesnok Red. As the name indicates, the bulbs have red-purple stripes. I have some California late and California early garlic I will harvest as they mature. The California garlic is the same kind sold in the grocery store. The Chesnok is an heirloom variety.

If all goes well, the 75 or so cloves of garlic I will end up with will last us all winter, and I’ll have plenty to share. I grow hardneck varieties, so named because it has a hard stalk in the middle. I grow it because it stores better than the softneck variety and because it has larger cloves that are easier to peel than the numerous small cloves of softneck garlic.

I pull up my garlic during dry weather in June when most of the tops turn brown and fall over, and I put it in a shed outdoors to cure for a few weeks. Leaving the tops on until after the garlic cures helps seal the bulb and keep it from spoiling. Do not remove the tops until they have cured on the garlic for a few weeks and the odor of the fresh garlic has decreased significantly. I have tried curing it in the house but the odor nearly ran us out of the house. I moved it to the garage, which became unusable for car storage for awhile because of the smell. I didn’t realize then that garlic cures well outside, sheltered from the rain; animals won’t bother it because of the odor. Now, I cure it in my potting shed and, after curing outside, its odor is not noticeable in the house when I bring it in to store for the winter in a closet.

One of the largest cloves; I'll save it to replant next year
If you’d like to plant some garlic this year, it’s easy to grow and takes up minimal space in the garden. Purchase bulbs in garden centers or through companies such as Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply,, Johnny’s Selected Seeds,, or Burpee, in the early fall. Garlic is sold in bulbs, so separate the bulbs into individual cloves, and plant them as directed on the package, or 2-3 inches deep, 4-5 inches apart, in full sun and well-drained, fertile soil with the pointy end of the clove up. Mulch the garlic, and a few weeks later, you will see green spears poke through the mulch. Break off any flowers that appear so the plant will devote energy to clove production instead of seed production.

I select the largest, healthiest, firmest bulbs to save back for seed for next year. My goal is to become entirely self-sufficient in garlic, and I have nearly achieved this goal. I still purchase some garlic bulbs to plant for seed, but I have not bought garlic for cooking in a couple of years, and I would say we use at least an average of one bulb of garlic per week in cooking. Eventually, by selecting the best bulbs for seed from my harvest every year and replanting them, I hope to grow enough garlic for seed and for our use of a variety that’s perfectly suited for my garden.

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