In Praise of Garlic

One of the oldest known cultivated crops, Garlic was revered by the ancient Egyptians, who believed it imparted strength and prevented disease – an estimated 680,000 kgs of it fuelled the workers who built the great pyramids at Giza*Roman generals planted fields of it in conquered countries – to transfer courage to the battlefield (although the more well-to-do Romans didn’t actually touch the stuff themselves).

Buying garlic today, there’s every chance your supermarket-bought bulbs have travelled from China, which is now the world’s largest producer of garlic by a significant stretch – it’s responsible for 77% of what’s produced. If you’re like me and prefer your food to have travelled as little as possible en route to your kitchen, why not grow your own? It’s easy – and, best of all, will do as well in containers as it does in the ground, so space isn’t an issue.

Here’s how to do it:

garlic shootsFirst things first: Don’t grow garlic from shop-bought bulbs. They can harbour viruses or, because they’re bred for warmer climates/different soil conditions (see ref to China being the world’s largest producer!), may not do well in your garden. Finally, many are treated to prevent them from sprouting on the shelf. If they can’t sprout…you get the idea. You can sow from your harvested bulbs next time around.

You’ve got two choices: Soft neck Garlic or Hard Neck Garlic. Soft neck stores better – it’s the garlic you see plaited in the shops. Both have the same sowing and care needs – the key difference is time of year…hard neck should be planted in September/October (N. hemisphere), while soft neck can be sown towards the end of January. Some people would argue for planting before Christmas – “Sow on the shortest day, harvest on the longest” being the tradition. As with many traditions, there’s room for flexibility – so if your mind is only just beginning to turn towards the veg patch, it’s not a problem…

Break the garlic up into individual cloves. Be careful not to damage the skin or the bulbs can rot in the ground.

– Sow into well-prepared soil – or pots – 4 to 8 inches apart and about 3 inches deep. Gently push the bulb  -flat end down – into the soil until the tip is just below the surface. If it’s still frosty where you are, cover. Alternatively, start your cloves out indoors in seed trays, before planting out in the warmer weather in March.

Garlic Harvest– Sit back and wait for Summer to come…If your plants begin to flower, simply snip those off or the plant will put all its energy into that and not into developing nice fat bulbs. Cloves planted now should be ready mid-July. You’ll know the time is right when the leaves begin to fade yellow.

Be careful not to break/damage the bulbs when lifting your crop, or they won’t store well. Hang to dry off for about a week before storing for long term use. ‘Wet garlic’ – bulbs used for cooking fresh from the soil is popular with chefs and foodies, and has a slightly milder flavour than the dried bulbs.

Pests, problems, solutions:

If, like me, you have very heavy clay soil, either grow in containers or pop a little sand/grit into the sowing hole before you sow the cloves. It will help prevent rotting.

Rust…like all alliums (leeks, onions), garlic is susceptible to rust, which is a fungal disease that manifests itself in reddish flecks on the leaves. From an organic point of view, there isn’t a lot you can do about it, other than remove and bin the affected leaves (don’t compost them).

Planting further apart can help prevent rust from spreading to your other related crops. Planting in a  sunny spot is also helpful – the rust thrives in cool, damp conditions, so avoid watering late in the day if your plants are in a shady spot. As a precaution, plant in a different spot next year – and avoid planting any alliums in the same spot for three years. On the up-side, you can still eat the crop – and you can still use the harvested cloves for sowing – research has found that rust isn’t passed on this way.

Garlic Drying1

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