Success with Storing Garlic

Garlic hanging in vertical netting to cure and dry.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

I have written often about garlic, and now I am going to focus on the steps to take to ensure your garlic stores as long as possible. This assumes you have become successful at growing all you need for many months, if not most of a year, and your challenge now is keeping it in good shape.

Everything You Need to Know About Garlic June 2020 includes many, many links on all stages of garlic growing. And to sum it all up see My Garlic Slideshow

Much about garlic is to be found in my Alliums for the Month Series from 2018-2019. The April 2019 post gives links to each of them.

Here’s a sequence of tips, from choosing good varieties to storage, to maximize your chances of success with storing garlic.

Siberian hardneck garlic.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Choosing good storing varieties

  • See Garlic Almanac and Phenotypic Plasticity May 2021. Includes many links. Read this post to learn which characteristics are determined by the growing conditions, including climate, and which are inherent in that variety. Don’t rush to buy a variety that does well in California if you are in New England! Size isn’t everything, but for good size, predictably colored and flavored garlic, buy seed garlic grown locally that yields well. Over time, garlic saved and regrown each year in a certain locality (particular soil type, water availability, local temperatures, latitude, altitude, cultural practices) will adapt itself to that location, and yields can improve. For example, studies have shown that varieties grown in drought-prone areas can, over years, develop more drought-tolerance. Commercial cultivars can have the highest yield under well-watered conditions, but drought will show up the adapted strains in a comparison trial.
  • Get a soil test a month or so before planting, and determine if any soil amendments will help your garlic grow big and strong.
  • Soft neck varieties generally store longer than hardneck varieties. But you don’t need to give up on hard neck varieties! We like our hardneck garlic for flavor and for the large cloves. Most soft-necks have a group of small cloves in the center of each bulb. We grow hardneck to last us 4-6 months, and softneck to use after that, for another 4-6 months or until it’s all gone.
  • According to Ira Wallace at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, although most hardnecks store 4-6 months, Music and Chesnok Red can keep 7 months or more in central Virginia. Other hardnecks also rated by SESE as good for storage include German Extra-Hardy and Romanian Red. Softnecks such as Italian Softneck, Inchelium Red, California Early and Silverskins such as Nootka Rose and Silver Rose can store for up to 12 months under good conditions. Order in summer for delivery September to November according to your local planting date.
Garlic scallions prepared for sale. Typepad.com
  • Make your best use of garlic scallions and garlic scapes to extend the garlic season. Experiment with planting small cloves, or cull bulbs of softneck varieties, to grow scallions at various times of year to see what the range is where you are. See Alliums for November. Some growers are finding they can get a better income from garlic scallions than from bulb garlic, and so they are working to extend the garlic scallion season. We have only ever planted small cloves for garlic scallions in early November immediately after planting our maincrop garlic. By planting later, it is possible to stretch the harvest period out later. Softneck garlic varieties can make worthwhile growth for scallions even if planted after the start of January.

Planting garlic for strongest growth

  • Watch your soil temperature to determine when to plant your garlic. Ideally, the soil temp at 4″ (10 cm) deep will be 50°F (10°C) at 9 am, for a few consecutive days. If the fall is unusually warm, wait a week.  We plant in early-mid November. If you plant too early, the garlic will make too much lush leafy growth before cold weather (12°F/−11°C) and could get set back by freezing. If you plant too late, the garlic may not be able to grow enough strong roots before freezing conditions prevent growth. This will limit the size of the bulbs, and may lead to high winter-kill of the plants.
having fun popping garlic and talking about next year’s planned crops.
Photo Bell Oaks
  • Select large cloves from large bulbs, 2-2.5” (5-7.5 cm). Using large cloves from large bulbs usually gives the highest yields, and will, if repeated every year, steer your crop towards bigger bulbs. However, there is a limit: the very largest bulbs are often irregular, and have got large by growing lots of cloves, some of which are very small. As this is probably not what you want to steer towards, don’t use very large irregular bulbs as planting stock.
  • See Garlic Planting and Freeing Trapped Shoots for a summary and links to other posts.
  • See Plant Garlic (Alliums for November) for lots of info, including how much garlic to plant, popping cloves for planting, pre-plant seed treatments to reduce pests and diseases. Start your garlic off well by eliminating problems before you plant!
  • Mulch? At planting time, the soil is still warm, and the newly separated cloves are primed to start growing. If you want to roll out mulch as we do (big round bales of spoiled hay), then you need to act before fragile garlic shoots emerge from the soil. If you are using loose mulch you can blow or throw it over the beds, and a few emerged shoots are no big deal. If you don’t mulch, the soil and the garlic experiences more and wider temperature swings, including freezing conditions, which can dislodge the roots and reduce the rate of growth.
  • In areas where oats reliably winter-kill, if you have a lot of space, you can plant garlic between beds of oats, then later mow the oats and spread the straw between the rows. You do need quite widely-spaced rows of garlic to make this possible, and a bigger area in oats than in garlic.

Cultivating garlic for biggest plants

  • Free Trapped Garlic Shoots (Alliums for December). Watch your mulched garlic beds and when the shoots start to emerge, choose the moment to free any trapped shoots. Usually, most of the shoots will emerge on the same day. Work along the rows, investigating each spot where you expect a garlic plant to be, but nothing has emerged. This will help you with the goal of having a big harvest. After all, improving storability does imply having plenty!

    Garlic beds in April. Weed once a month from March. Photo Kathryn Simmons
  • Because of their vertical tubular or strap-like leaves, alliums do not compete well with broadleaf weeds and can easily become stunted in high weeds. All overwintered alliums will need weeding in March and once a month after that until harvest.
  • Mulched crops can be weeded during wet weather, if necessary, and the pulled weeds can be discarded on top of the mulch, where they stand a much better chance of dying then weeds discarded on bare soil.

Preparing garlic for harvest: removing scapes and mulch

  • Garlic Scapes (Alliums for May). Pulling scapes as soon as you can get a good grip below the head of the stem helps the garlic grow bigger. Removing the scapes does not reduce the storage life, as was once thought. Removing the mulch gives the garlic good airflow and helps it dry down. We do these jobs as soon as we start to see scapes (ours arrive 3 weeks before we need to harvest the bulbs):
  • Hot weather above 91°F (33°C) ends bulb growth and starts the drying down process. Watch the garlic, not the calendar!

    Pulling garlic scapes.
    Photo Wren Vile

Harvesting garlic

  • See Harvesting Garlic, Signs of maturity (Alliums for June) and Garlic signs of maturity October 2020. Count how many fully green inner leaves there are on a dozen random sample plants. Green leaves represent intact “wrappers” on the bulb, and having at least 4 will help your bulbs store well.  Six is better, five is enough, if your garlic doesn’t have to travel to distant markets. The gold standard (Ron Engeland) is if the sixth leaf down is starting to brown on 50% of the crop, then it’s ready to harvest.
  • Another sign of maturity that we use with our hardneck garlic is to dig a few sample bulbs, and cut them in half horizontally. If there are small open air spaces between the remains of the stem and the cloves, the bulbs are ready. If the cloves have not even differentiated, and you are viewing a single mass of garlic, you are too early by quite a bit. Test once a week. If your cloves are already springing apart from each other, like an opening flower bud, you are late. Your delicious garlic will not store for long. You might need to mince and freeze it in ice cube trays, if you want to preserve some for a while.
  • See Garlic Harvest step by Step June 2016
Hanging garlic in vertical netting.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier
  • Harvesting Garlic June 2013. Careful harvest extends storage life. Here’s our system:
  1. If the soil is very dry, water the night before – Very hard soil can damage the bulbs.
  2. Plan equal time to dig garlic and to hang it up. It’s important not to leave garlic in airless buckets.
  3. Dig the garlic carefully. Treat the bulbs like fragile, sun-sensitive eggs. Don’t bang, throw or drop the bulbs. Bruised bulbs won’t store well
  4. Loosen them with digging forks, without stabbing them. Pulling on unloosened garlic damages necks, they won’t store well
  5. If they have a lot of soil on the roots, use curled fingers to “brush” soil out
  6. Try not to rub or pick at the skin. Bulbs need several intact skin layers to store well.
  7. Don’t wash the bulbs, no matter how dirty. They need to dry, not get wetter. Dirt will dry and drop off during curing.
  8. Get the dug garlic indoors and hung up promptly. Air above 90°F (33°C) can cook the bulbs, sun can scorch them
Hauling the harvested garlic (and a tired worker) to the barn. Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier
  • Garlic Harvest June 2012. Our hardneck variety is always ready before our softneck variety.

Drying, curing, snipping, and sorting garlic for best keeping qualities

  • Garlic drying and curing methods Feb 2020. A useful roundup of approaches.
  • Drying and Curing Garlic June 2016
  • Drying and Curing Garlic Step by Step with Vertical Netting February 2020. This post has a complete step-by-step list of all the tasks from determining curing is finished, to storing for the winter. Here I am just picking out the bits that make the most difference to how well your garlic will store.
    • We hang our curing garlic in vertical netting around the walls of a barn. Some growers use horizontal racks, others tie garlic in bunches with string and hang the bunches from the rafters.
    • Hang curing garlic with fans if the humidity is high. Don’t set fans too close to the garlic, your goal is to improve the air flow, not blast the bulbs and shrivel them up. See my book Sustainable Market Farming.
    • A sequential arrangement of hanging in order of harvesting, simplifies trimming, and makes best use of the fans, giving the garlic the best chance of drying evenly.
    • Wait 3-4 weeks, then test some bulbs for dryness by rolling the neck of the garlic between your finger and thumb. It should feel dry, papery, strawy. If many bulbs are slippery, gooey, or damp in any way, delay the trimming until at least 90% of the necks are dry.
Trimming garlic stems prior to long-term storage.
Photo by Brittany Lewis

Snipping and sorting

  • Gently remove plants from the netting. Handle the bulbs gently so as not to bruise them. We need long storage, which means no damage.
  • Set up a comfortable place to work. Being comfortable aids good quality work!
  • Some people like to mark off 2”and 2 ½” on the arm of the chair, a nearby wood structure, or their knee.
  • Cut the roots off the garlic as close as possible in one or two snips. This stops them reabsorbing water from the air, and becoming undry.
  • Cut the tops off the garlic, leaving a ¼ – ½” stub. Cutting too close reduces the storage life.
  • Do not remove any skin. We want long storage not pretty-pretty.
  • If damaged, sprung apart or mushy anywhere, put that bulb on the Farm Use rack.
  • Feel the cut neck. The remains of the stem may have a Styrofoam texture. If damp at all, put the trimmed bulb on a rack to dry further.
  • If dry, select bulbs for replanting: If it’s not springing open and it could be between 2 and 2 ½” (5-7.5 cm), and is not obviously more than 10 cloves, measure it.
  • If it’s seed size and quality, put it in a green net bag. Green for Growing. If smaller or larger, put in a red bag for eating.
  • Lay down any bags that are more than 1/3 full, as the weight of garlic in a vertical bag can damage the bulbs at the bottom.
  • Periodically weigh the tied-off bags, make neck tags from masking tape, saying type, quality and weight.
  • Snipping, Sorting and Storing Garlic July 2013. A different step-by-step list.
  • Snip and Sort Garlic (Alliums for July)
Nootka Rose Silverskin softneck garlic is one of the best for long storage. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Storing garlic for a long season of good quality

  • Garlic does not need to be refrigerated immediately after trimming. Garlic bulbs can be stored in the high temperature range of 60ºF-90°F (16ºC-32°C) if they have never been refrigerated, the same as bulb onions. We store initially in a basement. Seed garlic can stay in the high temperature range until planting time.
  • It is important to avoid the sprouting temperature range of 40-55°F (5-13°C)
  • 32-39°F (0-4.5°C) is also a good temperature range.
  • See Storing through the winter: When temperatures seem likely to drop to below 55°F in our basement, we clear the top left shelves in the walk-in cooler and move the garlic there. The low shelves near the compressor do not work well. Use the drier high shelves.
  • See Move Stored Garlic (Alliums for September).
  • Commercially, garlic is stored in the dark at about 32°F (0°C) and 65% humidity, and depending on the species and variety, it may keep six months or more. I have heard that garlic can be stored for up to nine months at 27°F (-2.7°C), but I have not tried that myself. It does not freeze until 21°F (-6°C). Do not store peeled garlic in oil, as garlic is low in acidity and the botulin toxin could grow.
  • For storage, garlic (like onions) does best with a humidity of 60%–70%. Refrigerators are usually more humid than ideal.