Garlic has been grown and used since the dawn of recorded history. Whether for food, medicine or ritual, this plant cemented itself at the heart of every food culture it passed through. The first cookbook in the English language, written by the chef to Richard II in 1390, makes liberal use of garlic as an ingredient, even in salads. It has proven anti-bacterial properties and was used as such for dressing wounds in WW2, and is also used to deter insects (as well as vampires). It’s a great crop for beginners as it is so easy to grow and it’s something that no kitchen or garden should be without.
Growing your own gives you access to a much wider range of varieties that you can get in the shops. Most supermarket types are ‘soft-neck’ varieties, which are great for long-term storage. However, the gourmet will appreciate the ‘hard-neck’ types with their richer variety of flavours and fewer, larger cloves – but these will only keep for 3-6 months.
The most visible difference with the hard-necks is the long flower stalk, sent up in June, which often curls and spirals around. At the top is not a true flower, but a collection of little bulbs. It’s best to cut off these ‘scapes’ to prevent energy being diverted from root bulb formation, but they are delicious stir-fried, in omelettes or made into a pesto-type sauce – think of them as a cross between asparagus and a garlicky spring onion.
But garlic is useful for more than just flavouring food. I use it to disguise the smell of new plantings of peas and beans, which are a magnet for mice. Just a few cloves steeped overnight in a watering can, then watered on should be enough, though the effect is lost after it rains.
Grow your own garlic
Though bulbs bought in the supermarket will grow if planted, these mostly come hotter climates. You’ll get a better crop from a variety that has been bred for our cooler, wetter summers.
The hard-neck types are generally much hardier and can generally be planted from October onwards in most parts of the country, overwintering and producing large bulbs early the following summer.
Soft-neck types are usually planted in early spring, for harvest in July/August.
It was particularly noticeable last year, when we had a mild winter but a cold spring, that the autumn sown crops got a good start and made large bulbs, but the spring sown suffered in the cold and never really caught up.
All types though need a period of cold weather after planting to make the bulb split into cloves so make sure they are one of the few crops that can be planted between January and March.
The home grower gets to try another treat – ‘green’ garlic, harvested when the bulbs are swelling but not yet full-size and hardening. They can be cooked whole without separating and peeling and the sweet, mild flavour is a foodie’s delight. As these don’t reach full size you can plant these quite close together – 5 – 7.5cm (2-3in) apart – or fill gaps in your flower borders.
For full size bulbs, plant the individual cloves about 15cm (6in) apart in both directions. They prefer a free draining soil in full sun and can also be grown successfully in pots.
They are generally problem free – plants can get rust, which looks (as the name suggests) like orange, rusty patches on the leaves, but as long as the plants aren’t too stressed, they should grow through it.
Though you can save cloves from one year to replant the following season, don’t save for replanting from plants affected by rust.
Some parts of the country (SE and Central England, though it is spreading) are affected by allium leaf mining fly, the maggots of which tunnel through the stems, making them stunted and rotten. If this is a problem in your area, cover your plants with fleece or fine net from April to early June.
Finally, let’s hope there is truth in this old Welsh saying: “Eat leeks in March and garlic in May, Then the rest of the year, your doctor can play.”