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Grow Your Own Garlic

Fall’s the best time to plant

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Grow Your Own Garlic

We think of fall as harvest time, but when it comes to growing garlic, it's planting time. It's easy to grow this delicious and therapeutic plant.

The cloves left in a bulb of garlic I had sitting on the pantry shelf had started sprouting. It had been a mild winter, and spring was coming on early. So why not pop them into the ground and see what happens, I told myself.

From humble beginnings

That was nearly 20 years ago, and though I was excited to see my early efforts rewarded with half a dozen small garlic bulbs in midsummer, it took several years before I really knew what I was doing. The turning point for me was the offer of several “seed” bulbs from a company that specializes in garlic.

I had learned a few things by then, the most important of which is that garlic needs to be planted in the fall, not the spring. I already had a sunny garden bed ready, so in went the cloves—about 20 of them—and the crop the following year was magnificent. Every year since I’ve increased my planting count. Last October I planted about 500 cloves of half a dozen varieties.

Yes, I’ve had the garlic bug for years now. And more and more Canadian gardeners are joining me, including Ontario’s Liz Primeau, author of a number of gardening books, including her latest, In Pursuit of Garlic: An Intimate Look at the Divinely Odorous Bulb (Greystone Books, 2012).

Primeau says it’s no surprise garlic is drawing such huge interest, both for growing and eating. “People are more interested in growing garlic because more varieties (or cultivars) are available locally at garlic festivals and farmers’ markets than there were half a dozen years ago. And they care more about where their food comes from,” says Primeau, who grows her garlic in and around the established perennials in her garden. The first thing you need to know about growing garlic is that few vegetables are easier to grow, as long as you follow some simple rules. In fact, both central and western Canada are well suited to growing today’s garlic, as the bulbs need cold weather to form properly.

Meet the family

Garlic, which is part of the lily family and cousin to onions, leeks, and shallots, is thought to have originated in central Asia and spread to Europe and East Asia with early human migrations. According to Seeds of Diversity Canada, garlic bulbs were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, placing them in Egypt about 3,300 years ago.

Garlic spread from there to the Roman Empire and first came to North America with the Spanish explorers some five centuries ago. Yet most North Americans used it only sparingly, until the 1970s brought an explosion of interest in other cultures and their foods.

Healing properties

Garlic also has a long history as a medicinal plant. “People are becoming more aware of garlic’s therapeutic value—it’s gaining credence as an antifungal and an antibiotic, and is losing its reputation as an old wives’ remedy,” says Primeau. “There’s lots of research going on into its healing properties, and although most of it is still in vitro studies, the results are promising.” But more than anything else, garlic gives our dishes a flavour boost, enhancing them with richness and character. Imagine a Caesar salad without garlic, and a simple homemade tomato sauce would be unthinkable without a good hit of garlic.

Let’s get growing

September is a happy season for those who love fresh, preferably locally grown, food. Farmers’ markets are bursting with the bounty of summer, and you’ll find lots of great garlic wherever you go. Don’t just think about tonight’s supper, however.

Talk to the grower, find out what kind of garlic he or she is offering, and ask for some growing tips. Then buy a few extra heads and save them for planting in early October, before the first hard frost hits. Garlic likes a reasonably fertile, well-drained soil, and you don’t need a huge space to start growing your own. I’ve seen it grown successfully in two- to three-gallon sized pots.

How to plant

When ready to plant, carefully break apart the bulb into separate cloves. Make sure the papery skins stay intact, as these protect the clove from rot.

Plant each clove root-side down (pointy side up), about 2 in (5 cm) deep and about 6 in (15 cm) apart. Plant rows about 10 to 12 in (25 to 30 cm) apart. If your winters are severe, mulch with straw or leaves to a depth of about 4 in (10 cm).

In spring, remove the leaves so the shoots can come up freely. Weed regularly as the stalks grow. Garlic has very few pests. The worst are fungal and can be avoided by rotating your planting site every few years.

Harvesting your crop

Scapes

The first thing you’ll harvest are the garlic scapes, or “flower” heads, which can curl or grow up straight. The scapes will show in about mid-June and need to be cut off to allow the bulbs to form fully. Mild-flavoured scapes are edible, either raw in salads or chopped into stir-fries, or try pickling them.

Bulbs

Once half of the plant has yellowed (and after you’ve stopped watering), it’s time to dig up the bounty. Use a regular garden fork to loosen the bulbs, but be careful not to get too close or you’ll nick the bulb, which will make it prone to rot.

Drying

Gently wipe the soil from the bulbs and let them dry in a warm, airy place. I usually lay mine out in the sun for a few hours as soon as they’re dug up, turning them a couple of times to speed drying. But don’t leave them out any longer, as this will “cook” them and spoil their keeping qualities.

Curing

Hang the stalks in small bunches, and let them cure for three weeks. When completely dry, cut off the stalks, clean off any remaining dirt, and store in baskets or mesh bags, so air can circulate. Do not refrigerate or keep them in an unheated area over the winter, as this will cause them to sprout.

When to water

On the West Coast, there’s usually enough rain in the spring and early summer to encourage good garlic growth. But if you’re in an area where there’s little or no rain, you’ll need to water regularly, from 1 to 2 1/2 in (2.5 to 6 cm) per week, depending on soil type. If your soil is coarse, shallow, or sandy, you’ll need to water more often, whereas clay soil may not need as much.

Stop watering about three weeks before harvest. Garlic is usually ready to harvest by mid-July, when about half the plants have started yellowing. You’ll want to start using your crop right away, and that’s possible, of course. But if you’re patient enough to wait until they’re fully cured, you’ll be rewarded with exquisite flavour. So good, in fact, that you’ll have to remind yourself to put aside a few bulbs for next year’s crop.

Some Rocambole with your pasta?

Garlic comes in two strains: soft neck and hard neck. This refers to their stalks, and generally speaking, hard necks produce scapes and soft necks do not. Soft necks are used to make garlic braids. Within these strains, there are half a dozen types, and within these types, there are dozens more cultivars. One type, Rocambole, includes cooks’ favourite cultivars Russian Red and Spanish Roja, while Porcelain’s Music is popular for producing very large bulbs with good storage qualities.

There are subtle differences in flavour, but each offers a delicious garlic hit. No matter what you grow, it will taste better than most of the tired stuff you find in the supermarket.

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