Like everything else, the garlic has matured early this season and is ready to be pulled. That warm period we had way back last March accelerated the growth of almost everything, including the buried garlic seed cloves. Watering should be withheld for two weeks before digging the bulbs to encourage the papery wrappers to dry and shrink tight to the cloves. But even if you’ve continued watering, you can check to see if the bulbs are reading to be harvested.
The first sign of ripeness is yellowed foliage, and when the leaves are half faded you can carefully excavate around one bulb and check for maturity. You should be able to feel prominent individual cloves under their paper wrapping. It’s important to harvest when the paper covering is tight and intact, for it will keep out soil organisms that can rot the bulb. If harvested late, the paper layers will crack, allowing soil and bacteria into the bulb and shortening its storage life.
Harvested bulbs need to be cured before they’re stored. Leaving the tall stems and foliage on the bulbs, gently clean all the soil off and give them a quick rinse with a hose, but don’t soak or wet the bulbs heavily. Lay the plants in one layer on newspaper in a cool dry place, perhaps a garage or basement, and allow the drying process to begin. After several days the paper coverings should be dry and firmly shrunk around the cloves. Remove the upper stems and foliage, and leave the garlic bulbs to dry for another week or 10 days. When the root tufts at the bottom of the bulbs are thoroughly dry and shrunken, you can store the bulbs in baskets or mesh bags for future use.
My friend and colleague, Liz Primeau, has written a wonderful book about garlic, In Pursuit of Garlic: An Intimate Look at the Divinely Odorous Bulb (Greystone Books, $19.95). Liz is a good gardener, and she certainly has given us every inspired reason to grow this delicious plant.