Gar­lic: The god­dess of the ed­i­ble gar­den

The god­dess of the ed­i­ble gar­den

Manitoba Gardener Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Dave Han­son

Few in­gre­di­ents can be as ubiq­ui­tous, raunchy and in­tense, yet all the while del­i­cate, com­plex and heroic as gar­lic. The cloves of Al­lium sativum are in­deed a so­phis­ti­cated bit of phy­to­chem­istry, loaded with heaps of plea­sure in­duc­ing flavonoids that not only taste amaz­ing but also con­fer a wide ar­ray of health ben­e­fits (e.g. blood pres­sure re­duc­tion, choles­terol re­duc­tion). The pun­gent oils are also as­so­ci­ated with ev­ery­thing from dis­cour­ag­ing vam­pires (which may or may not ac­tu­ally work...) to serv­ing as a ver­sa­tile gar­den-mate in com­pan­ion plant­ing strate­gies. Gar­lic is a herb to love and def­i­nitely one to grow.

Hard­neck vs soft­neck

In north­ern re­gions, the go-to gar­lic for home plant­ing is called “hard­neck”, a ref­er­ence to the sturdy struc­ture known as a scape that shoots up through the mid­dle of the plant each sum­mer, end­ing in a flower-like struc­ture full of baby bulbs (bul­bils). Hard­neck gar­lic is from the sub-species Al­lium sativum var. ophioscorodon and, it is worth not­ing, that chefs and gar­lic con­nois­seurs the world over con­sider hard­necks to be the most flavour­ful garlics on the planet. Hard­neck gar­lic thrives where win­ters are cold and can­not eas­ily be grown where there is too much warmth. We live in an ideal cli­mate to grow the best gar­lic in the world.

By con­trast, the last gro­cery store gar­lic bulb you pur­chased was likely a “soft­neck” gar­lic, which hails from warmer cli­mates and lacks par­tic­u­lar charm. Soft­neck gar­lic has good stor­age qual­i­ties, and tends to have easy peel, plump bulbs which have made soft­neck the mar­ket cham­pion in Canada since the 1990’s (ac­tu­ally mostly due to cheap pro­duc­tion out­side of Canada. Gar­lic farms in Canada dropped from 4,500 acres to less than 300 acres be­tween 2000 and 2002). But there is no com­par­ing the flavour of soft­neck to hard­neck garlics – and great gar­lic is mak­ing a spir­ited come back. To find the very best gar­lic look for the tri­fecta of hard­neck, or­ganic and heir­loom.

How to grow it

Gar­lic is grown from bulbs, com­monly re­ferred to as “seed gar­lic”, which is a lit­tle con­fus­ing since gar­lic al­most never pro­duces true seeds. Just as with pota­toes, there are many ben­e­fits to plant­ing gar­lic from pro­fes­sion­ally grown stock. Seed gar­lic grow­ers’ work hard to pro­duce qual­ity prop­a­ga­tion ma­te­rial and this is re­flected in the price when com­pared to ta­ble gar­lic, but the ben­e­fits of ideally sized, dis­ease-free and true-to-name bulbs are well worth the cost. Once a hard­neck crop is es­tab­lished, home gar­den­ers can also use home-har­vested bul­bils for re­plant­ing.

Al­though gar­lic will sprout if planted in spring, the only way to get a fully ma­ture bulb in our re­gion is by plant­ing it in fall. Tim­ing is ac­tu­ally very im­por­tant, since prairie weather has a bad habit of go­ing from gor­geous to ghastly in a hurry. The first task of a freshly planted gar­lic bulb is to set out a strong root sys­tem, and avoid shoot­ing above ground at all cost (fall shoots are a big vul­ner­a­bil­ity that gen­er­ally leads to win­ter kill). Start plant­ing around the first

week of Oc­to­ber – but no ear­lier. Cool, frosty nights send a clear mes­sage to keep shoots tucked in­side the bulb, while the ac­cu­mu­lated warmth of sum­mer lingers for months in the soil, al­low­ing roots to grow even as snow ar­rives. A well-devel­oped root sys­tem is what sets the stage for gar­lic to poke up early in spring, es­tab­lished and ready to grow into a prized har­vest.

Gar­lic thrives in well drained, loamy soil with lots of com­post mixed in. An ex­cel­lent strat­egy is to amend gar­lic beds with com­post and leaf lit­ter each fall, ahead of plant­ing. The bulbs can be planted into the ground or into low raised beds (min­i­mum 4 ft. by 4 ft. by 11 in. high), but may not sur­vive win­ter when planted into other types of con­tain­ers. Gar­lic re­quires a sunny lo­ca­tion and ideally beds should be main­tained, weed free and have ac­cess to early sum­mer ir­ri­ga­tion. Al­though gar­lic is un­happy in a weedy bed, it can grow very suc­cess­fully tucked in among smaller com­pan­ion plants such as straw­ber­ries (a great space sav­ing strat­egy). The most im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion when choos­ing a site for gar­lic is to avoid soggy ground or ar­eas that do not get good air move­ment. Grow­ing gar­lic in the home gar­den is easy, ex­cept where the bulbs are sub­ject to poor soil aer­a­tion.

Plant­ing and care

Plant­ing is sim­ple: gen­tly push in­di­vid­ual cloves ap­prox­i­mately four inches into the soil, with the pointy side fac­ing up. With hard­neck gar­lic the pointy side must face up­wards, or else plants will grow at an an­gle which causes trou­ble for the crop in spring. The pa­pery wrap­per should be left on the cloves as you plant. Space bulbs eight inches apart if you have lots of room, or a lit­tle tighter if space is lim­ited; tighter spac­ing yields many smaller cloves while larger spac­ing en­cour­ages the largest cloves. A sprin­kle of bone­meal is rec­om­mended at time of plant­ing, as phos­pho­rous is the ma­jor nu­tri­ent as­so­ci­ated with root devel­op­ment.

Mulching of the gar­lic bed is wise, as this al­le­vi­ates the like­li­hood of gar­lic send­ing up shoots in fall. A thick layer of leaf mulch is per­fect, up to four inches. Not only will this pro­vide in­su­la­tion, but the leaf ma­te­rial will ul­ti­mately break down and be­come a nu­tri­ent and ben­e­fi­cial mi­croor­gan­ism re­source for the crop.

Come spring, the to-do list in­cludes weed­ing and also

en­sur­ing plants are wa­tered. The beds re­quire even mois­ture in the spring and early sum­mer (through to mid-July) so pay at­ten­tion to wa­ter­ing if spring is trend­ing to­wards dry. The plant­ing site can be top dressed with qual­ity com­post in May, af­ter which no ad­di­tional fer­til­izer will be re­quired. Pretty easy!

Sum­mer scapes and fall har­vest­ing

The next ex­cit­ing phase in the gar­lic grow­ing process comes as the scapes snake their way up into the July gar­den. There is full on dis­agree­ment about whether or not re­mov­ing the scapes in­flu­ences the size of the gar­lic bulbs come har­vest time, but one thing is for sure: gar­lic scapes are a tasty bit of fore­play ahead of the main at­trac­tion. If you de­cide to snip off the scapes they can be pre­pared in a myr­iad of de­li­cious ways, all of which are pro­foundly gar­licky. The eas­i­est is to sim­ply steam them and add a lit­tle but­ter and lemon juice. Another is to sauté them, alone or with other sum­mer veg­gies. Gar­lic scape pesto is a won­der­fully straight­for­ward path to ac­co­lades from your din­ner guests. If you de­cide to leave the scapes on, the ad­van­tage is the for­ma­tion of the bul­bils which can be saved for the long, but re­li­able, goal of grow­ing lots more gar­lic. Per­haps the best way to re­solve this scape or no scape is­sue is to ex­per­i­ment, and leave some on while clip­ping oth­ers off.

As July turns into early Au­gust gar­lic will de­velop broad leaves, with each set cor­re­spond­ing to a layer of wrap­per on the de­vel­op­ing bulb. Within a cou­ple of weeks the first set of leaves will start to yel­low, which is the big clue that har­vest time has ar­rived. Al­though noth­ing ter­ri­bly bad hap­pens if tim­ing is a lit­tle off, gar­lic cloves will start to break apart from the tight bulb if left in the soil for an ex­tended pe­riod, sig­nif­i­cantly di­min­ish­ing the stor­age life. Each sea­son has its own course, so keep in mind the flex­i­ble na­ture of har­vest­ing and get to know the signs of ma­ture gar­lic.

Per­haps the most del­i­cate part of grow­ing gar­lic comes at har­vest time. It does not take much to da­m­age the bulbs, and each lit­tle nick or bruise is an op­por­tu­nity for the crop to be spoiled. The per­fect tool for home gar­lic har­vest is the hands. Use your fin­gers to gen­tly feel your way around the bulb and lift from the base up. Avoid pulling plants up by the leaves or scape. Once out of the ground the bulbs can have any loose soil care­fully tapped off (but no deep clean­ing just yet), and then be set aside for cur­ing. Cur­ing is the process of slowly air dry­ing the bulbs, with leaves and stock left in place. The ideal lo­ca­tion is a screened porch or gazebo, where lots of air passes through and there is shel­ter from di­rect sun and mois­ture. Hard­neck gar­lic is very dif­fi­cult to braid, so bunches are loosely gath­ered and held to­gether by string. A handy tech­nique is to hang the gar­lic off of a wooden clothes dry­ing rack, or off the rafters in a suit­able build­ing. Some grow­ers let gar­lic cure in the gar­den, but this only works if there is no chance of rain for at least a two week pe­riod. So, go for the shel­tered lo­ca­tion!

Once cur­ing is com­plete the leaves, stalk and roots can be trimmed off, leav­ing about one inch on top and a half inch on the roots. The stor­age life of well grown and har­vested hard­neck gar­lic ranges from four to nine months de­pend­ing in the va­ri­ety.

Gar­lic is too easy to grow to miss out on this gor­geous home­grown taste, and it is one of the BIG op­por­tu­ni­ties for the fall gar­dener. Happy plant­ing.

Dave Han­son is a gar­den­ing colum­nist and me­dia per­son­al­ity with a life­long love of all things herbal, and the co-owner of Sage Gar­den Green­houses in Win­nipeg, Man­i­toba. For more in­for­ma­tion visit

Plant­ing gar­lic with straw­ber­ries is a great space sav­ing strat­egy.

Space gar­lic eight inches apart if you have room when plant­ing them.

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