Growing garlic is well-suited to both the first time gardener and the more experienced - given the correct soil and planting time, common garlic is relatively maintenance free, yet some of the more unusual varieties can provide a challenge.
Garlic has been used by humans for thousands of years with evidence found in caves inhabited more than 10,000 years ago. Medicinal prescriptions were found chiseled into a clay Sumerian tablet that was more than 3,000 years old.
Garlic is a key ingredient to a wide variety of recipes, and is quickly becoming regarded as a natural method to prevent heart disease and cancer - it is after all the second oldest medicine in the world.
Where To Grow Garlic
Grow your garlic in full sun - garlic needs to grow quickly in order to produce good sized bulbs. Pick a site that is not prone to water-logging, this will ensure the bulbs do not rot over winter.
Garlic is very well suited to growing in raised beds as the higher yielding over winter varieties won't suffer from waterlogging in a wet Winter.
The secret to growing garlic is to plant it in mid October - spring planting is possible in warmer areas, but even then, better sized bulbs will result from an autumn sowing. Dig the soil well to a spade's depth before planting, incorporating as much organic matter as possible to assist with drainage - garlic will rot in water-logged conditions. If you can purchase and dig in some sand (from your garden centre) at this stage, the drainage will be improved even further. A couple of handfuls of bonemeal can also be incorporated every square metre (yard).
Autumn garlic will yield a better size clove but is not advisable in a wet garden. If you live in a wet area plant Autumn garlic in a raised bed or wait and sow in Spring.
Garlic needs a cold period of about 6 weeks where the soil temperature is below 10°. This is the reason we can only plant in Autumn or very early spring. If this doesn't happen the garlic won't split into cloves and you'll get just one solid clove-less bulb.
Choosing garlic cloves
Before you plant garlic it's important to select the best bulbs. It is far better to buy guaranteed virus and eelworm free bulbs than to use shop bought garlic. Most supermarket garlic is asian in origin and can carry disease into your garden.
In the following years you can use the cloves from the garlic you grow as long as they appear to be strong and healthy.
Not all of the cloves in a garlic bulb are suitable for planting. Only select the fatter outside cloves rather than the thinner ones towards the centre of the bulb. Of the outside cloves make sure they are firm, plump and free of any mould or dark patches. Don't separate the cloves from the bulb until you are ready to plant as they will become soft and prone to disease.
Each bulb will consist of up to 20 individual cloves, and it is these cloves which are to be individually planted. Gently remove the outer skin from the bulb (not the cloves) and separate into individual cloves. Select the largest eight or so of the cloves which will be on the outside of the bulb.
Plant garlic in at a spacing of 20 - 25cm between plants and 25cm between rows. Plant one clove per spacing with the pointy end facing upwards and about 2cm below the surface of the soil. For Autumn sown garlic it's a good idea to mulch the bed with leaves or straw to protect form severe frost.
Garlic thrives on a well fed soil at the correct time, so in late March and again in mid May, feed the soil with general purpose fertiliser such as Growmore. If you can do this once or twice a month, so much the better. Apart from this, their only other requirement is to keep them free of weeds and in dry conditions water them. They will produce green foliage starting around April time.
Keep garlic weed free, the tall spindly foliage is prone to weeds as it provides no cover.
I know you're probably groaning seeing seeing a picture of a hoe but it you do it often it is pretty much effortless. In fact I bet you'll enjoy it. My favourite tool by a country mile is the oscillating hoe, it's an old fashioned tool that works beautifully.
Fungal disease can be a problem for some crops and weeds can contribute to this by cutting down the air circulation around your plants. Plants with good, clear space between them will be much healthier than congested crops.
You will also find hoeing makes your crops grow better. This is because it breaks up the top layer of the soil and lets air and moisture circulate freely. Hoeing does a lot more than clear weeds, believe me.
Love your hoe, keep at it regularly and it's a breeze.
Garlic is normally ready for harvesting when most of the foliage has turned yellowy-brown - this will be around mid August time. It' is important to dig the cloves before the foliage falls over otherwise the cloves will open up and rot in the ground. The problem with harvesting garlic is knowing when they are ripe - harvest too early and the bulbs will be small, harvest too late and the bulb will have split making harvest difficult and the cloves of low quality (they will have commenced their growing cycle for next year).
Problems will occur mainly in wet summers - the leaves may only have started to turn yellow but if the garlic is left in wet ground at this stage, the bulbs will very quickly become diseased. For this reason a second method is needed to determine what stage they have reached. If the weather is wet in early August, pull up one bulb and see how many sheaths (very thin papery layers around the bulb) you can peel off the bulb - if there are only three, harvest the bulbs, if there are four or more, wait another two weeks or until most of the leaves have turned brown.
When harvesting garlic bulbs, gently ease them out of the ground with the assistance of a trowel to loosen the surrounding soil - be careful not to bruise them with the trowel because they will then not keep for long. Remove any excess soil from the bulbs but do not remove the foliage.
Garlic should be dried in the sun for 3 - 4 weeks if possible. If you live anywhere like me you can hang it in an airy open shed.
Once your garlic is dry it can be tied into bunches for storage. The longer the foliage stays on the plant, the longer the storage life.
Give the bulbs a clean by wiping them with a very slightly damp cloth. Discard any bulbs with small cloves or any that are split open. You can use them for cooking.
Select your 3 largest garlic bulbs with good long strips of foliage. Take the stems from the left and right and cross them over the one in the center.
Take the stem on the bottom and bend it over the stem in the middle. Add another garlic bulb and repeat the process.