Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Growing Garlic at Home
This is the first year that I am attempting to grow garlic. Obviously, I'm not an expert, but here's what I've learned about different garlic varieties, planting and harvesting so far...
First, here's a good book to read:
Garlic is a member of the allium family which also includes leeks, shallots and onions. Individual cloves act as seeds. The bulbs grow underground and the leaves shoot in to the air.
Softneck Garlic Varieties
Almost all supermarket garlic is a softneck variety. This is because softneck garlic is easier to grow and plant mechanically and also keeps for longer than hardneck. Softnecks are recognised by the white papery skin and an abundance of cloves, often forming several layers around the central core. The flexible stalk also allows softneck garlic to be formed into garlic braids (plaits).
There are two main types of softneck garlic: silverskin and artichoke. Silverskin garlic is most common simply because it's easier to grow and keeps longer. Artichoke garlic tends to have fewer but larger cloves and a milder flavour. The artichoke garlic bulb wrappers are coarser than those of silverskins and sometimes have purple blotches.
Hardneck Garlic Varieties
Hardneck garlic is technically known as the ophioscorodon variety of allium ativum. Hardneck garlics have a "scape" - stalk - which coils from the top. On the top of this scape grow a number of bubils which are often mistakenly referred to as garlic flowers. Hardneck garlics have fewer, larger cloves then the softnecks. They also have less of an outer bulb wrapper, sometimes none at all. This makes them more sensitive and reduces their shelf life.
There are three main types of hardneck garlic: rocambole, porcelain and purple stripe. Rocambole garlic usually has up to a dozen cloves of a tan or browny colour. Porcelain garlic has a satiny white wrapper and the fewest cloves in a bulb, perhaps as few as four very large cloves. Porcelain garlic is often mistaken for elephant garlic. Purple stripe garlic is highly distinctive because of its colouring, with bright purple markings.
Garlic is grown from the individual cloves. Each clove will produce one plant with a single bulb - which may in turn contain up to twenty cloves. Growing garlic is therefore self-sustaining.
When planting garlic, choose a garden site that gets plenty of sun and where the soil is not too damp. The cloves should be planted individually, upright and about an inch under the surface. Plant the cloves about 4 inches apart. Rows should be about 18 inches apart.
It is traditional to plant garlic on the shortest day of the year. Whether this is for symbolic or practical reasons is unclear.
Poor weather conditions often mean that spring planted garlic produces smaller bulbs. In addition the seed garlic must be chilled before planting in order to cause it to break out of its dormancy. That said, spring garlic planting can produce good results in the warmer Southern areas where it is often planted in late February or March. It also removes any possibility of the plant being damaged by the winter cold.
In more Northerly areas it more common to plant garlic towards the end of the year. In Europe there is a tradition of planting garlic on the shortest day of the year, however this is probably more for symbolic reasons than horticultural ones. The usual advice to gardeners is to plant fall garlic soon after the first major frost of the year, usually between mid-October and late November depending on your local climate. Garlic is generally winter hardy, however can be damaged if the temperatures are very cold and the snow cover thin. If this is the case, cover the garlic with straw to protect it.
If all is well then the shoots of fall planted garlic should emerge from the ground in early spring. If not then you still have the opportunity to plant a spring crop.
Garlic is a very friendly plant and grows well planted with other flowers and vegetables. Garlic co-planting is especially beneficial to lettuce (where it deters aphids) and cabbage (deterring many common pests). As well as protecting other plants garlic can also improve their flavour. Beets and cabbage are reported to be especially good companions that benefit from this. But not all companion planting combinations are beneficial. Garlic doesn't seem to cooperate well with legumes (beans and pulses), peas or potatoes. Try not to plant these too near your garlic.
As garlic reaches maturity, the leaves will brown then die away. This is the cue that it is time to harvest your garlic crop. If you harvest too early the cloves will be very small, too late and the bulb will have split. Once picked, it is essential that garlic is dried properly, otherwise it will rot. The bulbs are often hung up in a cool, dry place. After a week or so, take them down and brush the dirt off gently - don't wash the bulbs at this stage.
I'll let you know how it goes...
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