Plant now to enjoy a bountiful harvest next summer
The present global pandemic cloud we are living under has, for me at least, had a few silver linings and one such is the increase in people wanting to try their hand at growing their own food. Veggie gardening has exploded and to me that is a win. I’ve been inundated with questions from people wanting to know how to get started and what to grow. One thing I consistently encourage is to grow your own garlic. It is dead easy to grow, takes very little time to plant, and while you do have to wait awhile to harvest, it is so worth it. So, put down the pumpkins and garden mums for a moment and let’s celebrate the start of garlic planting season.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is world renown, literally… most cuisines around the world have incorporated this pungent bulb into their culinary lexicon. I think I would be hard pressed to find someone who was not familiar with the flavour, but there is a big difference between store bought garlic and homegrown. Most garlic in the grocery store comes all the way from China and has, shall we say… a mild, simple, flavour that is consistently the same. But garlic grown in the garden is flavourful, complex and can vary greatly between different varieties. If you’ve ever tasted the difference between a store bought and still warm from the garden heirloom vine-ripened tomato, then you know what I’m talking about; it’s a similar situation with garlic. Once you go homegrown, you’ll never go back. Personally, I shed a small tear when I finish up my garden bounty and have to trudge to the store with my head hanging low to buy my garlic.
If incredible flavour isn’t enough to tempt you then consider adding garlic to your meals for health reasons. If we look back into history garlic has been used by a number of cultures as both a medicine and food. And even into modern times there are claims of antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties of garlic. It is also reported to be high in protein, vitamin C, potassium, calcium and phosphorus. From what I have seen there have been lots of studies, but many of them have conflicting results. So, while the jury may still be out on the medicinal properties, in my opinion garlic in your diet is a good thing.
Here is yet another reason why I love to grow garlic, it’s just so easy to grow and always seems to preform (unlike other veggies… ahem… peppers). Garlic, Allium sativum, is a perennial member of the allium family and is a close cousin to the likes of onion and leeks. The planting time for garlic is a little different, you plant it in the fall and then can pretty much forget about it until July when it’s time to harvest. Garlic needs a cold period in order to grow so you can plant it from the end of September all through until the end of November.
When planting you break the cloves up doing your best to keep the paper covering intact. Let’s just get rid of an awkward garlic question right now, no you cannot just plant the whole bulb, you need to crack it apart into the individual cloves.
Dig a hole or a trench deep enough so the cloves will be just 2-5cm below the soil surface. Then nestle your cloves in pointy side up and make sure to space them out 10-15cm apart. It’s important not to crowd your garlic if you want nice big cloves. Garlic doesn’t like too much competition and so if you want the biggest bulbs, and yes in this case size does matter, make sure you space them properly, then tuck them back in and keep your garlic patch weed-free with a nice mulch. I don’t do much in the way of extra fertilization in the fall, I prefer to do my soil amendment in the spring when things start to really get growing. Now just sit back and watch the garlic grow.
Scapes or Flowering Stalks
Before I get on to the details of how to harvest your garlic, a little bit of advice for those of you growing hard neck garlic. It will produce a flowering scape sometime in the spring (usually around May). These scapes must not be allowed to mature because growing a flower takes strength away from forming a bulb, and we want to eat that bulb. The good news is the scapes are edible and delicious, so double whammy for the hard necks. Garlic scapes are great steamed with a bit of butter, tossed into a stir fry or my favourite is garlic scape pesto (the recipe is below).
Now, one of the big questions is “how do I know when to harvest?” You can’t really pull up your plant to have a look so you have to take your clues from how the plant is doing. Generally, garlic is ready to harvest in July when you will start to see your plants begin to die starting with the bottom leaves. Don’t panic, this the normal process. The rule as I have been told by a few very serious and talented garlic growers is that when there are at least five still fully green leaves on the plant, it is time to harvest. If you leave it too late and let too many leaves go brown then the papery bulb covering can rot away and expose the cloves. This means the garlic will not store well.
When you harvest you want to loosen soil with hand shovel or fork and then gently ease the plant out, taking care to not damage the bulb. Don’t pull too hard on the leaves or they can break off. Brush off soil and leave your garlic somewhere dry. Never wash your garlic, this is a sure-fire way to get them to rot. Once dry you can carefully brush off any remaining soil and clip the roots close to the bulb. Now you want to cure your garlic, which is just a fancy way of saying drying them to prepare them for storage. To do this you can choose to keep all the leaves and braid your garlic or just clip the excess leaves off. If you opt to clip them just make sure you leave about 20cm of the stalk as this helps in the curing process by drawing moisture out of the bulb. Once they have dried (usually about 4-6 weeks) you can tell by how pliable the stem is, then it’s safe to cut them shorter. During the curing process the flavours of your garlic can change. Garlic eaten fresh out of the ground is generally milder than one that has been curing for a few months. Store them in a dry, dark area with good air circulation and enjoy the harvest all winter long.
Some of the diversity of flavour I mentioned above comes from the sheer volume of different varieties available to grow. I will attempt to narrow down the selection but I do recommend heading down to the garden centre and peruse the garlic selection. Many gardeners keep some of their harvest to replant each year which is something I do myself. But I also like to try some new ones, you never know when you will find a new favourite.
In general, there are two main types of garlic, soft neck (Allium sativum var. sativum) and hard neck (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon). The big difference between the two types being the clove formation pattern, flower stalk (called a scape), and cold hardiness.
Soft neck garlic is what you find in the grocery store. The cloves form in a more complex layered pattern and are generally smaller, have thicker skins (makes them harder to peel) and somewhat milder in taste. They are less winter hardy, but can still perform on the coast. They are called soft neck because they don’t produce a tall upright flowering stalk (called a scape). To be honest I’m more of a hard neck fan but I am considering looking out for Nootka Rose to plant this year. I’ve also heard that Inchelium Red and the California types are worth seeking out.
Hard neck garlics are called such due to their ability to grow a scape or flowering stem. This stem goes all the way down into the bulb and the cloves form in a circle around it. Therefor the garlic has a hard or stiff neck. They are also the most cold hardy of the garlics, which is something we don’t often need on the coast, but can be a definite benefit in the colder interior regions. They have thinner skins, so are easier to peel and generally produce bigger, but not as many, cloves. It’s my personal belief that they are also more flavourful than the soft necks. The hard necks are separated further into little “subfamilies” such as:
Purple Stripes, are old varieties with purple striping on the delicate paper, good for our milder winters look for Chesnok Red and Purple Glazer.
Porcelain, these are the most winter hardy of the garlics and so are great for colder areas, but can sometimes struggle a little on the coast. They have larger cloves with thicker paper skins, and are good for storage. Music is a really popular variety.
Marble purple striped, is another group of garlic with purple striping on the paper. They have a consistent clove size and taste, are very dependable and easy to grow and store well. Red Russian and Siberian are great ones to try.
Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum) is not actually a garlic, it’s more like a leek… but we won’t hold that against it. Instead of forming multiple small cloves it produces a few enormous cloves, that are generally milder in flavour and perfect for roasting. Plant it the same as garlic but feel free to leave it in the ground for a few years to allow it time to spread into a clump. There is no need to harvest it every year as it is very resistant to rot, and consider just enjoying it for the flowers for a few years before digging it up to enjoy at the table.
I said garlic was easy to grow but it’s not perfect. There are a few things that can affect your garlic crop. Mostly different rots and fungal disease, but I won’t bore you with all the details. What you need to know is if you see rot or fluffy fungal growth then you might have a problem, but don’t panic. Not all of the rots affecting garlic are fatal. Instead let’s concentrate on what you can do to make sure your crop stays healthy.
The first is rotate your garlic crop. That means you need to move it around and not plant it in the same spot every year. Generally, it is suggested you use a four-year rotation, so plant garlic in one spot and then for the next three years plant it somewhere else. The reason for this is many of fungus are soil borne (that means they live in the soil), if you keep planting garlic (or any other allium for that matter) in the same soil you are just feeding the fungus and increasing its population. If you take away what it feeds on then it will hopefully die out or at least not build up a huge fungal mass.
Another thing you can do is make sure not to damage the cloves when you plant them, as this is another way the fungus can enter the bulb. The last thing you can do is get good cloves to plant. If seed cloves have been stored or grown poorly then they are more likely to have issues. Get your seed from a reputable source like your local GardenWorks.
The other disease that can affect garlic is rust. It is just like it sounds the leaves look like they are rusting, being covered with yellowish orange flecks on the leaves. This happens in cool wet years, like the one we just had. It’s not a definite death warrant but can if intense enough it can kill a plant, and it definitely reduces yield. If you see it developing you can cut the infected leaf off to try and reduce its spread, but really that only helps to reduce the infection. I have a pretty bad case of rust in my garlic this year and I still had an impressive yield. So, just try and rotate your alliums and keep your fingers crossed for some drier weather.
The love of garlic goes deep, there are Garlic Festivals all around BC where people celebrate this wonderful pungent bulb. So next summer if COVID allows and we can all be together again, do a quick online search for the closest garlic festival and go and enjoy all things garlic from garlic fudge (yes, it’s a thing) to a garlic themed poem (yep, also a real thing). But even if we can’t be together next summer, do something for your future-self this fall and plant some garlic, your next-year-self will thank you.
Garlic Scape Pesto – save this recipe for next summer
1 cup garlic scapes cut into 2cm pieces
½ cup basil
1/3 cup walnuts
½ cup olive or avocado oil
½ cup grated Parmesan (the good stuff)
½ t lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Put the scapes, basil, walnuts, Parmesan, and lemon juice in a food processor and process until finely chopped. With the processor running slowly add oil through the opening. Season with salt and pepper and enjoy.
Written by: Ingrid Hoff