A member of the allium family of onions and shallots, though sometimes referred to as a herb, garlic is not difficult to grow and quite easy to maintain. It can be grown directly into the ground or in containers, so is quite a versatile plant which can be accommodated in whatever space you have available.
Garlic for planting is bought as a bulb, usually two or three to a pack. The bulbs need to be split into cloves first and planted with the flat bottom part of the clove downwards. Garlic likes a fertile, well-drained soil, so apply plenty of well-rotted manure and organic matter in autumn for spring planting, and in early summer for autumn planting.
If you have recently harvested a crop on the same patch which was well manured, garlic could be used as a follow on. If your soil is acidic, add lime to increase the alkalinity of the soil (up to about 6.5 pH).
Cloves should be planted 5cm (2in) deep, 7.5cm-10cm (3in-4in) apart and 20cm (8in) between rows. Alternatively, you can grow them in 40cm (16in) pots. Some growers prefer to start their garlic cloves off in modular cells to get them off to a good start and then plant them out a few weeks later or even overwinter them for planting out in spring.
Looking after your plants
Garlic requires very little maintenance other than watering if the weather turns dry and regular weeding. Even though cold is good where garlic is concerned, if the weather turns very cold, say below -5°C (23°F), a little mulching around the plants will help protect them, or cover with fleece or a cloche until the weather warms up a little.
Garlic is ready for lifting when the leaves begin to turn yellow and start to bend over. Leave the bulbs in too long and the cloves will start to split, though if you lift them too early they will have had insufficient time in the ground to dry out and will not store so well so monitor closely come harvest time.
Use a fork to loosen the soil around the roots before lifting and then spread the bulbs out on trays to dry for a few days, or under cover if it’s wet. If you keep the stalks on you can plait or string them and then hang them up to dry in a cool, frost-free shed.
Varieties to try
Hardneck types produce large cloves that don’t store as well as softneck types which produce more cloves too. Hardneck varieties often produce scapes (flower stalks) which should be cut off – though they are edible and can be used to flavour savoury dishes. Elephant garlic, which belongs to the leek family and is therefore not a true garlic, produces mild-flavoured, very large, whole bulbs which don’t divide into cloves.
- ‘Elephant garlic‘: This aptly named variety of the leek family produces whole bulbs that dwarf garlic bulbs. Suitable for both spring and autumn planting.
- ‘Germidour’: A purple-streaked softneck variety with a mild flavour. Suitable for spring and autumn planting.
- ‘Provence wight‘: This softneck variety produces large bulbs. Suitable for autumn planting.
- ‘Red duke‘: A hardneck variety which produces purple-tinged bulbs with a strong flavour. Good for autumn planting.
Watch out for
Garlic tends to be relatively problem free but can experience the same problems that also affect other members of the onion family.
- Allium Leaf Miner: This is a relative newcomer, first appearing in the early years of the 21st century in the southern half of the UK, but spreading fast. The fly lays eggs on the plant and
the maggots burrow into all parts of the plant. The resulting pupae are brown. Covering with fleece or fine insect netting will keep the flies out.
- Leek Moth: The caterpillars of this moth feed on the leaves, causing serious damage to the plant and consequent rotting. Covering with fleece or fine insect netting will keep the moths out. Clear the debris away from around the plant too as adult moths are likely to overwinter there.
- Onion White Rot: This can devastate a crop and is more likely in hot, dry summers with the leaves turning yellow and the base of the bulbs showing fluffy white fungus. Nothing much to be done here other than avoiding growing any of the onion family on the same patch for five years or more as this is a soil-borne disease.
- Rust: This is an unsightly fungal disease which shows itself as orange-red-brown pustules on leaves (below). Unless seriously affected, the bulbs themselves tend to be unaffected.