Variety-starved supermarket shoppers might believe these flavoursome bulbs to be as straight-forward as they come. But grow your own and you'll find there's an array of flavours and colours, have a crop that retains its fresh, creamy quality after months in storage, and be able to enjoy sweet-tasting 'wet' garlic
Garlic has been cultivated for thousands of years (it was used by the ancient Egyptians) and is one of those crops that gardeners either love or hate.
First, the basics: it is a large bulb which consists of numerous edible cloves inside a paper-like skin. These have a very distinct and strong flavour and can be crushed, chopped or left whole and used to enhance casseroles, roast meats, soups, stews and stir-fries. (After a meal, chewing a few sprigs of raw parsley or a roasted coffee bean will help freshen the breath).
Garlic is also well known for its health-giving properties and was consumed by ancient Greek athletes and Roman Gladiators to give them strength before competitions, armed combat and major battles. These days, it is eaten to help keep the heart healthy, lower cholesterol (though this remains unproven) and ward off coughs and colds. It may also have a role in fighting cancer. Fortunately, for garlic fans, it can be an extremely easy and reliable crop to grow and now is an ideal time to plant the cloves in the garden for a crop next summer. It is great for beginner gardeners, as it requires little maintenance, is relatively trouble free and takes up hardly any outdoor space
Garlic should always be raised in a warm, sheltered and sunny spot.
Light and well-drained soil that is not prone to waterlogging is essential. To prepare the site, use a fork to dig over the ground thoroughly and remove any weeds, large stones or debris.
A few days before planting (and on a dry day), rake over the soil surface several times to create a fine, crumbly and level tilth and scatter a fertiliser, such as Growmore over the ground. On plots with a very heavy soil that is prone to consistent waterlogging, garlic cloves can rot, especially in the winter. It is therefore better to plant them in a specially prepared raised bed, as this will improve the drainage.
A square raised bed can be made by laying four equally-sized pieces of railway sleeper (or similar-sized wooden beams) on to bare earth, forking over the soil at the base and then filling the gap inside with a 5cm layer of horticultural grit followed by John Innes No. 1 compost
The usual method of raising new plants is to use the cloves.
For reliability, select some of the best plants from a growing crop and, after harvesting the bulbs and preparing them for storage, save and use these for cultivation purposes (rather than eating) the following season. Hard-necked varieties also produce a flower stalk and, if this is allowed to develop, a small umbel will form at the top of each one – these are filled with tiny bulbils which can be used for propagation purposes. Simply plant them in the autumn or spring and they will grow into a clove during the first year and a large bulb by the third or fourth.
If you’re starting out raising garlic, make sure you buy a variety that has been specifically bred for cultivating in our climate – these are traditionally ‘soft-necked’ (see panel overleaf), although ‘hard-necked’ types originating in Eastern Europe, such as ‘Chesnok Wight’ also grow well here.
Bulbs from supermarkets can be used for planting purposes but as they are often produced abroad, they may not grow well in the UK. It’s therefore much better to buy garlic bulbs from a specialist supplier who will know which varieties are best for your region.
To crop satisfactorily, garlic must undergo a fairly long growing season in the ground and a period (one to two months) of cold when the temperature is below 10°C. For this reason, October and November and February and March are the ideal planting times. Start by selecting a plump and healthy garlic bulb that is firm to the touch and shows no sign of damage or disease, then carefully break it into individual cloves. Plant these 15cm apart, with their pointed tips 3cm below the soil surface – firm each one in well. If you are growing more than one row, leave a 30cm gap between these. In extreme autumn weather, the cloves can also be planted in modular seed trays (one clove per cell) filled with John Innes No. 1 compost and left in a wellventilated cold frame (or cold greenhouse) over the winter. Plant the resulting garlic plants outside in March. An alternative is to raise a crop in containers filled with John Innes No. 1 compost – position them in a sunny and sheltered part of the plot.
Once planted, garlic is straightforward to maintain and nurture. However, the crop will need regular watering in long spells of dry weather, especially between the main growing period of late March to mid-June. The best time to water is in the early morning as this gives the leaves time to dry off before nightfall, helping to stop diseases such as downy mildew from taking hold. All weeds should also be removed. If left, they will steal valuable moisture and nutrients from the ground to the detriment of the crop, and they may also provide a home for garlic pests.
An autumn-planted crop should also be fed with sulphate of potash in the late winter (or early spring) to improve growth and provide some protection against rust (a fungus). Hard-necked garlic varieties produce a flower stalk (scape) and the crop yield will usually be better if this is removed as soon as it appears.
Autumn-planted garlic will usually be ready for lifting in June (or early July) the following summer. Spring-planted garlic will mature by mid-July. Once half of the leaves turn yellow (but before they have died back completely) carefully unearth the bulbs with a fork – avoid touching the skins as the bulbs bruise and damage easily.
Try to do this on a sunny day so wet soil won’t stick to the bulbs (which need to be dried before they can be safely stored). The sweetest flavour and least pungency comes from fresh garlic so, at this stage, leave some of the bulbs to dry in the sun for a few hours and then eat them as soon as possible as ‘wet’ garlic. However, if you want to prolong the life of the remainder and store them for future use, they must be cured after harvesting. A good way to do this is to leave them to dry in slatted trays in a wellventilated greenhouse. The bulbs are ready for storing when the skins are papery and rustle when handled, as this means there is no moisture left in the neck. This usually takes around 14 to 25 days.
Garlic keeps better the less it is disturbed so, if appearance isn’t everything, leave the roots on. The bulbs can be stored by plaiting them into ropes, hanging the bulbs in net sacks, or tying them into bunches – place in a reasonably warm (and frost-free) room with a dry atmosphere. It’s also important that there are few fluctuations in temperature – if it varies, the garlic goes into reproduction mode and the cloves start to sprout. This is typical of supermarket-bought bulbs that are kept in cold storage (at around -3°C) and begin to grow rapidly when taken into the warmth of a house. Once in store, autumn-planted garlic usually lasts until the following January and spring-planted garlic until April or May.
Keep the crop weedfree. Prepare the ground if you are planning to plant cloves in February.
Keep autumn-planted crops weed-free and feed the plants by working sulphate of potash into the soil around them (at 85g per square yard).
Plant the individual cloves (or overwintered young plants). Water garlic crops in dry weather and remove all weeds. Plant bulbils for propagation purposes.
Water in dry weather and weed diligently. Harvest the bulbs and either eat them or leave them to dry.
When the necks of the bulbs are quite dry, prepare the garlic for storing or plaiting.
Order garlic bulbs and prepare the ground for planting during mid-autumn.
In organic gardening, companion planting is often used as a simple method of preventing problems with pests and diseases. It basically means growing two (or more) different plant species together to the benefit of one or both. Garlic is a very useful companion plant for many vegetables and ornamental plants due to the fact that its strong smell will act as a natural deterrent to scent-sensitive insects. For instance, garlic is frequently positioned underneath roses to ward greenfly (aphids) off the leaves and flowers. In the same fashion, a few garlic plants can be dotted around the edges of the vegetable plot to ensure troublesome flying bugs, such as greenfly, cabbage root flies and carrot flies are kept away from cabbages, carrots and lettuces.
Related Forum Topics
Garlic: Varieties To Try
A large soft-necked garlic for autumn or spring planting. In a good year, the bulbs can be harvested as early as mid-June and used immediately as 'wet' garlic, which has a sweeter flavour. The Garlic Farm
A purple-coloured hard-necked variety for planting in autumn and lifting from mid- June onwards. It has a delicious, robust flavour and the flower spikes can be snapped off and used in stir-fries. The Garlic Farm
Early Purple Wight
An early cropping, soft-necked type with purple-streaked bulbs. It is planted in the autumn and best eaten straight after harvesting as 'wet' garlic, although it will store for up to three months.
A soft-necked garlic which can be planted in the autumn or spring. It produces large and high quality white bulbs and, as well as having an exceptional taste and aroma, can be stored for many months
Hard & Soft-Necked Garlic
Garlic varieties traditionally fall into one of two camps: soft- and hard-necked. Most garlic grown in this country is soft-necked and has been specifically bred for our climate. These varieties are easy to grow, store for long periods, do not flower and have flexible stalks making them ideal for plaiting.
Hard-necked types (see ‘Propagating it’, left) usually produce fewer but larger cloves. Unfortunately, these have a fairly thin skin, which can make them sensitive to cold weather and limit their storage life. They also naturally produce a flower stalk (scape) – this can be removed, allowed to develop and then eaten (chop it up finely and add to stir-fries and salads) or left to form bulbils which are used to propagate new plants.