I harvest the garlic when 4-5 of the leaves have browned but the paper that surrounds the head of cloves is still fully intact. This means I usually take some samples until I choose the day that seems best to me. Since I grow several varieties of both hardneck and softneck garlics and they mature at different rates, I always have a few heads where the paper has split and the cloves are exposed. Not to worry: you can still enjoy the garlic. There’s a certain amount of judgment and a lot of forgiveness in deciding when to harvest. Whatever day you choose, you will enjoy wonderful garlic.
You can clean your garlic by peeling off the outer leaf-paper or by gently rinsing off the dirt. There’s much debate about which is the better way to clean your garlic. Some don’t clean it at all and cure it as is. Others cut off the root beard being sure not to damage the root plate that holds the head of cloves together. I’ve tried all and always have had great garlic. I prefer to clean my garlic because it’s tidier to cook with later. I lightly rinse and dry it in the shade.
Garlic, once picked and cleaned up a bit, needs to cure for 4-6 weeks. I tie 8-10 heads together with cotton twine and hang them in an open, fully shaded, well-ventilated place. Curing allows the moisture to leave the cloves and concentrates the flavors. As a rule of thumb, I usually pick my garlic around the 4th of July and start cooking with it around Labor Day. (I also pickle garlic and often use the loose cloves from the heads with split papers. More to follow on this.)
It’s best to use up your garlic by December Solstice: otherwise, it rots or sprouts. Whatever you do, don’t store your garlic with potatoes or onions. The moisture that potatoes and onions release will cause your garlic to rot more quickly. Store it as able in a shaded, well-ventilated spot.
You can also cook with fresh, newly harvested and uncured garlic. Can you tell the difference in taste?