Used in everything from stir fry to Shepherds Pie it is pretty rare to find a household that does not have garlic in their kitchen cupboard. But, despite it being relatively easy to grow, many gardeners do not include it in their planting.
It is a hard working plant that does more than just give a delicious crop though. Like most of the onion family, garlic is great for companion planting. Plant between rows of vegetables especially carrots and its scent will deter pests. This gives a natural boost to your garden's pest protection. Also, garlic is pollinated by bees, butterflies, moths, and other insects too so great for encouraging wildlife onto your plot.
Types of garlic
There are two main sorts.
Softneck (Allium sativum var. sativum) is the garlic which most supermarkets stock. The bulb has a slightly hotter flavour than the Hardnecks, produces more smaller cloves and stores very well. Since the necks are soft, this is the sort you want if you have the time and energy create a garlic plait. They also sprout relatively quickly so are satisfying to grow for the garlic novice.
Hardnecks (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) are closer to wild garlic, with more complex flavours. These garlics have subtle flavour differences created from the soil and weather patterns in the region where you grow them. The advantage of Hardneck varieties for the cook is that their skins usually slip off easily. They do not store as long as Softnecks though. Cure and eat them within 3 to 10 months, depending on the variety.
There is some debate about hardiness with some believing that Softneck will grow only in the warmer parts of the UK so if in doubt in the coolest parts of the UK it might be a better to choose Hardneck. Which you choose is up to you though as there is anecdotal evidence of both thriving in areas of the country where they should be struggling.
There are many varieties of each sort to choose from depending on the flavour and bulb size you would like to produce.
When to Plant
Garlic needs a long growing season. The cloves can be planted in late Autumn or early Spring but you will get a bigger crop if you plant in Autumn.
Whatever variety you choose, to grow well, it needs a cold period of at least two months. For Autumn sowing, it is therefore essential to sow from early-October to allow the roots to develop before the cold weather sets in. With this in mind Hardnecks should be planted at the beginning of October but Softnecks can wait until around Christmas time.
The Hardnecks will be slower to show themselves so even with this planting timetable you may see the Softnecks appear first.
Where to plant
We recommend growing garlic in a rotation system with carrots, onions, leeks, and other root vegetables. A classic rotation is tomato family, broccoli family, onion family including your garlic. But as a companion plant we find it makes a great space filler between carrots, sweet peppers, spinach, lettuce and parsnips, roses and other flowers too.
How to plant
Garlic is rarely planted from seed with the cloves used instead. These are readily available from seed companies and garden centres but you can use pretty much any garlic cloves hanging around your kitchen ... just gently break apart the bulb and each clove will produce it's own plant
It can be planted directly into the soil but if you suffer from pests such as birds ripping out your young plants then sowing into Rootrainers first may help your plants survive. See our recent Overwintering Onions Blog for the full story.
Plant in fertile, well-drained soil. A Raised Bed works very well. Remove stones from the top 6 inches of soil. Work several inches of compost or well-rotted manure into the bed, along with your fertiliser of choice.
- Break up the bulbs no longer than 24 hours before you plant them. Be careful not to bruise or damage them.
- Sow the individual cloves 10 cm below the surface, root down (pointy end up) around 4 inches apart to give the bulb room to grow.
- Hardneck garlic loves to flower. Cut off the stem close to the base of the bulb once the flower stem starts to coil. This will concentrate the plants' energy into the crop beneath increasing the size of the bulb.
- Once the leaves go yellow/brown stop watering the plants. Harvest 2 to 3 weeks later (June onwards)
- Try to harvest when the weather is dry. Loosen beneath it with a fork to prevent bruising the bulb then pull up like a weed. Leave the plants on the surface of the soil to dry in the sun for a few hours. Move to somewhere warm and dry, to cure for 3 weeks.
- Thoroughly dry the bulbs then store them in a cool, ventilated place away from sun.
Garlic is unbelievably good for you. It can lower blood pressure, fat and cholesterol levels. It can also combat bacterial, fungal and viral infections.
There are lots of opportunities for the gardener growing their own garlic to plant a few extra and leave it to flower or to experiment with young garlic, picked before it has matured.
As well as eating the bulb the leaves and flowers are also edible. They have a milder flavor than the bulbs, and are most often consumed while immature and still tender. You may see "green garlic" in the shops. This is immature plant that has been pulled rather like a scallion.
When green garlic has grown past the "scallion" stage, but not fully matured, it may produce a garlic "round", a bulb not separated into cloves like a mature bulb. This imparts a garlic flavor and aroma in food, minus the spiciness of the mature bulb.