Well autumn is in the air and garlic planting season is upon us. So now is the time to visit the garden centre for your best selection, particularly because this past wet spring wreaked havoc on the garlic harvest and some varieties are in short supply this year. In the spirit of homegrown cuisine, I thought I’d provide novice growers with the basics of garlic cultivation and perhaps share a few tips for the more seasoned gardeners.
Why you should grow your own garlic; If you want truly organic garlic then simply grow your own as most of the imported store-bought crop has been bleached (with chlorine) to whiten the skin and possibly treated with growth inhibiters or irradiation to prevent sprouting. Also, homegrown garlic tastes ten times better than anything you can buy from the supermarket.
When do you plant garlic? The optional time to plant garlic in coastal BC is from late September through to early November, with mid- October being the ideal. You can also plant in early March for a fall harvest but expect much smaller bulbs and occasionally these will be solid with no individual cloves developed.
Where should I plant my garlic? Choose the sunniest part of your garden, keeping in mind that we are talking about winter sun. Good drainage is also very important, with raised beds or rows being ideal. This really came into play this past harvest when four months of spring rains caused ground-level garlic to rot or experience severe fungal problems, while those in raised beds fared quite well despite the weather. If possible, rotate your garlic crop every 3-4 years (follow with brassicas) to prevent the possible build-up of disease.
How should I prepare the soil? About two weeks to a month before planting amend the soil with compost or mushroom manure (avoid too much manure, as this has been linked to garlic rust problems). You will also want to lime the soil at this time as garlic prefers a neutral to slightly alkaline pH. Adding gypsum (calcium sulphate) provides sulfur which is essential for the spicy flavour and health benefits we receive from garlic. You can also work in some organic fertilizer such as Gaia Green All-Purpose 4-4-4 but avoid excessive nitrogen as you will only get plenty of foliage with small bulbs.
What type of garlic should I plant? There are three basic types of garlic; Softneck (Allium sativum var. sativum), Hardneck (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) and Elephant (Allium ampeloprasum) which is not a true garlic but a leek. Softneck is your typical grocery store garlic which prefers a warmer climate, generally does not produce scapes but stores longer than Hardneck and can be braided. Hardneck types have stiff stalks and fewer cloves than Softneck garlic but tends to grow better on the coast and produces edible flower scapes.
There are three types of Hardneck garlic; Rocambole (‘Spanish Roja’, ‘German Red’) with thin skin and curly scapes, Porcelain (‘German White’, ‘Legacy’, ‘Music’, ‘Yugoslavian’) which produces fat bulbs with thick skin that is good for storing and Purple Stripe (‘Metechi’, ‘Russian Red’, ‘Chesnok’, ‘Mexican Purple’, ‘Siberian’) with striped purple skin and flavours that vary from mild to very spicy. Elephant garlic is very easy to grow here, produces massive bulbs (up to 4-5” wide) with a mild flavour but also an abundance of tasty scapes.
How to Plant Garlic; Make sure that you only separate your bulbs right at planting time, as this helps the cloves to root faster.
Only plant the larger cloves (just eat the smaller ones) and have a little bone meal on hand to add to the planting hole to aid root development. Proper spacing is important as overcrowding will only result in too much competition and smaller bulbs; plant Softneck and Hardneck cloves 6-8” apart with rows 12” wide, while the larger Elephant should be planted 8-10” apart with rows every 18”. Plant the cloves so that the tips are about 2” below the soil and pointed upwards, do not remove the skins. Try to plant only unblemished garlic but if you had some fungal problems (white rot) the previous season, dip the cloves in a solution of 9 parts water to 1 part bleach and plant immediately.