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Stores Having 'Back to School' Sales? That Means It's Almost Garlic Planting Time!

Q. I've been growing garlic for several years, saving and replanting my largest cloves in rich soil, about 5" apart, in a raised bed in October. I normally harvest around the end of July. I went away at the beginning of July this year and didn't dig up any garlic first—even though the bottom leaves were getting brown and our chrysanthemums had already finished blooming. The stalks were mostly brown when I got home ten days later so I quickly pulled all the garlic. The bulbs are huge and beautiful, but the cloves are separating from the stalks. I've read that they probably won't keep well now, and that maybe I should peel and freeze a lot of them. But what can I do to preserve the best cloves for planting my new crop later this season? Will they last until October just hanging in a dry place? (We don't have air conditioning, so there is no "cool place".) Should I put them in the refrigerator? Freeze them? I'd appreciate your advice ASAP...

    ---Nicole in Wayne, PA
A. I got about eight things I want to say first, but "don't ever put garlic in the refrigerator or freezer" wins. Don't, don't, don't—if you do I'll come and plant bindweed and thistle in your garden.

A close second is "don't ever harvest garlic strictly by the calendar!" You do have a huge amount of wiggle room on the planting time, but not on the harvesting. As a garlic-growing friend of mine learned the hard way this year, you need to start pulling up test bulbs when the bottom third of most of the plants has turned brown—which his did in early June! (The same thing happened to plants I was growing from his cloves in my own garden. I followed my '1/3 brown' rule even though it meant I was theoretically harvesting a month early and got big, great-looking heads with perfect wrappers. Oddly enough, the garlic I planted from my own saved cloves came in at the normal time—which for me is early July.)

Don't worry about wasting any test plants that reveal it isn't harvest time yet. All parts of the garlic plant are edible at all stages of growth, so take those big leeks inside, clean them up and use them to season a garlicky dish. (Don't try and replant them; it just doesn't work.)

And keep testing weekly—if you wait too long, the protective wrappers will begin to split, which can severely limit the life and quality of the harvest. (And the "end of July" sounds much too late for a suburb of Philadelphia. I'm in a rural area 50 miles North of there, and I get nervous if I'm not pulling garlic by the 4th of July.)

OK—Now there's a big difference between the cloves separating from the stem and the wrappers coming off the cloves. Sooner or later, you have to take the cloves off the stem anyway, so that's no big whoop. But cloves whose paper wrappers have split open will quickly turn a brownish-yellow and become useless.

So that's job #1 with a garlic harvest. Carefully examine every bulb and separate out any with damaged wrappers. Cut any yellowed or brown areas off the affected cloves, and then chop up the nice white parts and dry them in a dehydrator or food dryer. When these little chunks o' garlic are bone dry, put them in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid and add as many of those little desiccating pouches as you can find. (You know—the things packed with vitamins and such to keep them fresh and dry; they often say 'do not eat' on the packets.) Later on, you can grind up those chunks and make the world's finest garlic powder.

Cloves with perfect wrappers should keep fine until planting time. And they don't need air conditioning; "cool and dry" just means a non-damp area that stays as cool as possible. My harvest is under a ceiling fan out on a screened porch. In previous years it used to hang on the wall of our kitchen, also cooled by ceiling fans. Just don't put your garlic in a dank basement or expose it to direct sun.

And don't wait until October to plant. An old Italian gentleman once told me to 'plant your garlic on the first day the kids go back to school and harvest it on the last day of school'. I'm a little North of where that advice works for harvesting, but I've been following his planting timing and getting my cloves in the ground around Labor Day ever since, with great results. Some of the hardneck varieties whose flavor I vastly prefer are even beginning to show the first signs of little green sprouts by then. (Sprouted garlic doesn't taste very good, but it's fine to plant.)

If you don't have your own cloves to replant, buy some starter garlic from a reputable seed company or a local grower. Farmer's Markets can be great sources of planting stock. Plant the individual cloves at least six inches apart in your loosest richest soil. In most of the country, plant so there's about six inches from the base of the planted clove to the top of the soil. In areas with extreme winters, plant a little deeper—and not in raised beds.

And for more garlic growing and processing info than you probably want or need (I am a total fool for garlic and write about it every chance I get), check out these previous Questions of the Week.

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