Harvesting and handling culinary garlic

Late June and early July are garlic-harvesting season. Our diverse culinary garlic has been very popular at market the last few years, with customers enjoying the ability to choose just the right variety for different uses. These include spicy garlic varieties for hot dishes like salsa, sweet garlic varieties best for roasting, and richly flavored garlic varieties with minimal aftertaste for raw uses like pesto. See the results of last year’s garlic tasting party for details.
Though garlic is not a labor-intensive crop overall, it does take a lot of work during the harvest period, particularly as our diversity requires a lot more care and handling than a generic one-variety wholesale crop. Harvest on our farm covers a three-week period, as different varieties mature at different times, and we have to fit in the extra work around our normal schedule. Here’s how we manage the harvesting and handling process.

We hand-pull our garlic, sometimes having to use digging knives if the soil is hard or the heads are especially deep. Breaking off a stem is very bad, as it means the head can’t cure properly. We move along the row, laying the heads out in linear piles until the entire variety is out of the ground. This is much easier when the ground is drier; this year’s harvest was a lot cleaner than the muddy conditions of the past few years. In dry conditions there’s only a little extra dirt on the heads, like the clean-enough ones shown at upper right, but we try to gently knock off as much as possible. If the ground is wet, we’ll have to swish the heads through a bucket of water to get mud clumps off the roots, which slows down the work considerably and makes the heads wetter than we’d like. We pack these carefully into labelled baskets or containers, and haul them back to the barn for further processing. Labelling is especially important as it’s quite difficult to tell most varieties from each other by sight, as is careful handling to prevent damage that could lead to spoilage later on.


Once at the barn, we sort the heads by size and quality, using our handy homemade garlic sorter (above). Each head is run through this slot, which is marked by diameter to sort the heads into five categories: Jumbo (really large & beautiful); A (standard head); Seed (same size as A but highest quality for replanting); B (smaller than we’d like but standard quality); <b (and="" (too="" ,this="" 300-400="" adjustments="" all="" an="" and="" annual="" as="" assessments="" back="" can="" damaged).="" deformed="" details="" each="" especially="" for="" garlic="" given="" heads,="" heads="" hold="" important.="" is="" make="" necessary.="" of="" or="" our="" out="" own="" p="" quality="" replanting="" sales).
This year, the garlic is especially large and beautiful; in the photo above you see from left to right an A, Jumbo, and a truly monstrous head that we have no category for. We’ve had the highest ratios of Jumbos and the lowest ratio of Bs and <Bs that we’ve ever had on this farm. Overall the large heads make us feel like good farmers, but they may be slower to dry, and thus we are slightly more concerned about whether the curing process will go smoothly. We did find onion maggots in some of the heads again this year, and while we don’t think they’re a major problem, they are a bit of a concern, especially with extra large heads.

Once the garlic is sorted into its five categories, we bundle it to hang for curing. We use five heads/bundle for the larger categories, and 7-8 for the smaller ones. Used baling twine works very well; we tie a tight square knot around the leaves just above the center of gravity (so the heads will hang downward), and cinch tight enough to hold when the drying leaves shrink, but not so tight as to cut off circulation through the leaves (which act to draw moisture from the head and speed the curing process). We label each bundle with its variety, category, and bundle number using masking tape and marker, so that each label reads something like SIB A #3 (Siberian, size A, 3rd bundle).

The bundles are hung from the rafters of our packing barn (above left), generally one variety to a rafter, and left to dry for approximately 3 weeks. We set up multiple fans at the back of the barn, blowing out, to make sure there’s enough airflow to keep the process going. With our extra-large heads this year, there’s a little concern about their ability to dry fast enough, but we’ll just have to see what happens. In 2010, our garlic was curing during some very wet weather that had us really worried, but it came out fine so we’re less paranoid during this drier year.

We’ve found that each variety, with 160-200 heads, takes about 5 person-hours to harvest, sort, and hang, for a total of about 60 hours of work that needs to be fit into the three weeks of already busy farm work. One of the reasons we skipped market last weekend was to give us time to focus on catching up with the weeding and maintenance that this work had forced us to neglect.


The good news, of course, is that with harvest done we can look forward to selling all this beautiful garlic at market. We display our twelve varieties in a cedar-stick grid ( see 2010 display, above), with informational signs for each. I bring 150-200 heads a week to market, and hang the bundles from the rear of our market tent. When I set up the stand, I cut down 4-5 heads of each variety for sale display, and will keep cutting down new heads to keep the numbers steady as they sell. Toward the end of market, I’ll stop cutting new ones; the goal is to have few cut heads left at closing time, as it’s easier to store and re-market them the next week with the leaves still on and in a labelled bundle.

Garlic is incredibly useful and diverse, and we’re looking forward to supplying lots of market customers with our wide selection of varieties. For some of our favorite ways to use & compare culinary garlic, see this post from 2010 on simple preparations.

2 thoughts on “Harvesting and handling culinary garlic

  1. I miss your garlic. Local farmers at the market here in Lexington don't have the variety and they don't cure their garlic!Jeff

  2. They don't cure it? Wow. So it's just available at the market for the few weeks it's fresh? That's wild.Come back and visit sometime through fall and we can get you a good batch. I haven't looked into how to handle taxes on out-of-state sales…