Garlic: for some a mere whiff of the stuff is enough; for others, only generous fistfuls of pungent cloves will do! If, like me, you fall firmly in the latter camp, this video’s for you my bad-breathed friend!
Where to Grow Garlic
Garlic loves a sunny position in fertile, well-drained soil. Choose a spot that hasn’t been used to grow other members of the allium family for at least the last two years to avoid spreading diseases. Garlic isn’t keen on acidic soil, so if you know your soil is acidic try adding some lime or wood ash to the soil before planting to help raise its pH.
Improve the soil at least annually with plenty of rich, well-rotted compost, which can be added to the soil as a mulch or dug in. I also like to add a scattering of general-purpose organic fertiliser at planting time to get plants off to a good start.
What Type of Garlic to Grow?
There are two types of garlic. Softneck garlic stores for ages – well into the following growing season if you’re lucky – and are well suited to braiding into garlic strings. They tend to be ready to harvest a few weeks sooner than the other type of garlic: the hardnecks.
Hardneck garlic produces a hard, stiff flower stalk called a scape around which the cloves develop. The scapes are edible, so essentially you can have two separate harvests from the one planting. Hardneck cloves are often larger than softnecks, and considered to have a more complex flavour. They are more cold-hardy too, so good for cooler climates.
You may also have heard of elephant garlic. It’s not a true garlic, but is grown in the same way. It has a very mild garlic taste that makes it a delicious vegetable in its own right. The bulbs can reach up to 6in (15cm) across in ideal conditions!
You could plant grocery store-bought garlic but these can be a bit hit-and-miss, plus you never know if they’ve been treated in some way to inhibit growth or whether they’re suitable for your climate. It can be worth trying a few pots though, even if only for garlic greens for stir-frying.
How to Plant Garlic
While garlic loves a warm, sun-baked position, it does need a period of chilling to prime it for growth – without it, it simply won’t form a proper bulb. For this reason, the very best time to plant it is in the autumn so it has a decent winter ahead of it, and the sooner you can get them in the ground the better, because that means more growing time and bigger bulbs. If your winters are very severe you will need to wait till spring to plant, and that’s just fine, so long as the cloves have a few chillier weeks before it really warms up. Or you could start your garlic off in small pots or modules of potting mix to plant out once the ground is no longer frozen and wet.
Don’t break up bulbs until you’re ready to plant, because they start to deteriorate as soon as you do this. Be careful not to damage the cloves as you split them apart, or you could invite disease. Plant the fattest cloves. Use up any that are very small or in any way soft – they won’t make good plants.
Plant your garlic deep enough that about an inch (3cm) of soil sits above the very top of the bulb. Space them about 4-6in (10-15cm) part within the row. Further rows should be about a foot (30cm) apart.
You can also plant into containers of all-purpose potting mix, which is a great idea if your soil is very heavy, cold or wet. Three cloves to a 6in (15cm)-diameter pot is about right. Drainage is important in containers, so make sure there are adequate drainage holes and lift pots off the ground (for instance on pot feet) so water can drain away properly.
Caring For Garlic
With your garlic planted there’s little left to do but wait! They might sprout short, sturdy leaves before winter – or they might not – but what matters is what’s going on beneath the ground, where the basal plate (the bottom of the clove) will be sending out new roots to anchor themselves into position ready to race ahead in spring.
These strappy-leaved plants need careful weeding to prevent them from being swamped by weeds. Hoe with care to prevent damage to the shallow roots. Hand weeding is best between plants.
Water well from the end of spring, or whenever warmer, drier weather arrives. Watering is important to help growth and encourage those delicious bulbs to swell up.
Hardneck varieties will produce flower stalks called scapes. These should be removed fairly quickly to concentrate the plants’ efforts into bulb formation. They generally appear a few weeks before it’s time to harvest – so when you see them you know you haven’t long to wait! Cut them off and use them in pesto, risotto, or egg dishes. This step really is important – remove the scapes and you not only get a bonus gourmet harvest, your bulbs will swell by as much as half again before harvest time.
Garlic can suffer from rust, a fungal disease, especially in damper climates. Planting at the correct spacing will help with airflow, while meticulously removing all plant material at harvest time should minimise opportunities for the disease to hang around to infect the next crop.
Harvesting & Storing Garlic
And when should you harvest? Well, the best indication is the leaves, which should be starting to show signs of yellowing. If in doubt, dig down a little to feel the bulb – you should be able to feel the individual cloves.
When your garlic is ready, use a hand fork to get underneath the bulb and carefully lever it up. Take great pains not to bruise the bulb, as any damage will dramatically reduce its storing ability. Shake off any excess soil then leave the bulbs somewhere sunny and warm to dry off completely. Bring them under cover if it’s wet and ensure good airflow by placing them on racks, or hang the garlic up to dry.
You can eat garlic fresh too – known as green or wet garlic. It’s much milder in taste like this and can be eaten raw.
Drying can take up a month. The foliage will die back completely, and can then be cut off to leave a stump above the bulb, or alternatively use it to weave the garlic into a string. Store your cured garlic at a cool room temperature somewhere dry and well-ventilated. They can be hung up in a net sack, woven into a string or bunched into clusters and hung up.
Garlic has an impressive list of health-boosting credentials – we’re talking antioxidants, a shed load of vitamins and minerals such as calcium, zinc, manganese, and selenium. Every garlic bulb is a pungent powerhouse of goodness – at least, that’s my excuse for eating so much of it! What’s your favourite type of garlic and your top garlic-loaded recipe? Pop a comment below and share it!