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Garlic Growing Guide

Garlic Growing Guide

Variety-starved supermarket shoppers might believe these flavoursome bulbs to be as straightforward as they come. But grow your own, and you’ll find there’s an array of flavours and colours. You’ll enjoy a crop that retains its fresh, creamy quality after months in storage, and explore sweet-tasting ‘wet’ garlic. You could even enjoy it so much that you decide to try growing elephant garlic!

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Garlic quick links

How to grow Garlic

How to Grow Garlic at Home in the UK

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’s 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 with a garlic crusher, chopped, or left whole. They’re used to enhance casseroles, roast meats, soups, stews and stir-fries. 

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. These days, it is eaten to help keep the heart healthy by relaxing your blood vessels, and to help ward off coughs and colds. It may also have a role in fighting cancer, and some people are such fans that they even take garlic supplements!

Fortunately, it can be extremely easy to grow garlic in the UK. It’s a reliable crop to grow and is great for beginner gardeners, as it requires little maintenance, is relatively trouble-free, and takes up hardly any outdoor space.

You can even try growing wild garlic, or bear’s garlic, at home from seed. You just need to sow the seeds indoors in March, or directly outside in April-June. The wild garlic will need temperatures of 15-20°C to germinate, and needs to be kept moist.

Preparing the Ground for Garlic

Garlic should always be grown 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. Scatter a fertiliser such as Growmore over the ground. On plots with a very heavy soil that is prone to consistent waterlogging, 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) onto bare earth. Fork over the soil at the base and then fill the gap inside with a 5cm layer of horticultural grit, followed by John Innes No. 1 compost.

Growing Garlic from Cloves

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.

Growing Garlic from a Bulb

You can grow garlic using bulbs… as long as you split them into cloves first. If you’re starting out raising garlic, make sure you buy a variety that has been specifically bred for cultivating in our UK climate. These are traditionally ‘soft-necked’, 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.

If you’re wondering ‘how long does garlic take to grow?’: it’s quite a while. To satisfactorily crop, 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, and it’s not really worth growing garlic indoors. 

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 well-ventilated cold frame (or cold greenhouse) over the winter. Plant the resulting garlic plants outside in March. An alternative is to grow garlic in pots in the UK. Fill the containers with John Innes No. 1 Compost and position them in a sunny and sheltered part of the plot.

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Growing Garlic month-by-month

January

Keep the crop weed-free. Prepare the ground if you are planning to plant cloves in February.

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.

March

Plant the individual cloves, or overwintered young plants. Water garlic crops in dry weather and remove all weeds. Plant bulbils for propagation purposes.

April

Water garlic plants in dry weather and keep them weed-free.

May

Water plants in dry weather and keep them weed-free.

Must do this month!
June

Water in dry weather and weed diligently. Harvest the bulbs and either eat them or leave them to dry.

July

Continue watering in dry weather and weeding to keep the ground clear. Harvest the bulbs and either eat them or leave them to dry.

August

When the necks of the bulbs are quite dry, prepare the garlic for storing or plaiting.

September

Order garlic bulbs and prepare the ground for planting during mid-autumn.

October

Order bulbs and prepare the ground for planting the cloves during late autumn, ideally in raised beds. Alternatively, start them off in modular containers. Plant bulbils from hard-necked varieties for propagation purposes.

November

Keep the ground weed-free.

December

Keep your garlic bed weed-free. Prepare the ground if you are planning to plant cloves in February.

Caring for your Garlic plants + problems

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.

How to harvest Garlic

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 that 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 well-ventilated 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 them 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.

Varieties of Garlic

Garlic varieties to try

'Albigensian Wight'

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.

'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.

'Solent Wight'

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.

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