Jon Thurston of Searsmont, the 1997 and 2005 Maine Agriculture Teacher of the Year, grows a lot of garlic — nearly 3,000 heads of the pungent, beloved bulb this season. Recently, he helped the students at the school at the Troy Howard Middle School Garden Project in Belfast harvest 1,000 bulbs of their own. Thurston shared some tips with the Bangor Daily News to help home gardeners take in and preserve their garlic crop.
How do you know when it’s time to harvest?
In late summer, July, the lower leaves start dying back. You look at and count all the leaves — seven or eight, maybe — and when you see you’re down to an average of five or six green leaves, it’s time. Everybody wants to treat garlic like an onion. With onions, you wait until the top falls over and dies, and then you pull it — but not garlic. Each leaf represents a wrapper on the bulb, and if you let them all die, they will not be a tight wrapper. They’ll be a loose wrapper. All the growers know this, all the farmers, but regular gardeners don’t always know unless they’ve done some reading up.
OK, I’ll go pull up my garlic! Then what?
The most important thing is that the dirt sticks to the roots. Rub the roots with your hand and get the soil off up to the base of the garlic. Just knock off the dirt. A lot of people want to rinse. Don’t rinse it. It will introduce a lot of excess moisture and will be susceptible to rot. That’s also true of potatoes and onions.
Dirt’s off. What’s next?
The second thing is to put the garlic in a dry place, where there’s some air movement. I put mine at the top level of my garage. I have wooden racks and lay the garlic out. I actually put a fan on it for a week to get the air movement going. The worst thing that can happen is that it will mold and you’ll lose your garlic. People in Maine used to hang it outside, but if there’s humidity, that’s bad news. I’m exceptionally picky about my garlic. That’s because one year I had a whole trash can of rotted garlic I had to throw away.
Is it okay to hang it in a bunch?
You can hang it in bunches, but not more than 10 to a bunch. Hang it in the dry, breezy air, out of the sun.
Do you save garlic to plant later in the fall?
If your own is very healthy, you should always set some aside for replanting. I haven’t purchased garlic for about 20 years.
Any tips for planting that garlic?
Garlic loves well-drained soil. It’ll rot in wet soil. It loves to be fed. It loves rich soil. I do hand-raised beds. I raise them with a rake, so it will drain well. Then plant the garlic cloves at least 4 inches apart and mulch it. Without mulch, if we have an open winter where the ground freezes, a frost heave will throw it out of the ground. You can use hay or leaves to mulch it, about 4 or 5 inches on top of the soil. In the spring, garlic is magic. I love it. It’s the first thing to come up.