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Oct / Nov issue of The Irish Garden








Vegetable Growing : Herbs; Garlic

Site and soil | Varieties | Planting | Aftercare | Harvesting and storage | Pests and Diseases

Garlic has become a standard item in many dishes in recent years as more people have become fans of this unique herb. Although it is used in relatively small quantities, it can significantly influence the flavour of a dish. It has excellent health enhancing properties being especially valuable for blood and heart health. It is best planted in autumn and nothing tastes as good as freshly lifted garlic.

Site and soil

Garlic likes a well-drained soil in a sunny position, like all members of the onion family. It is planted in autumn, or early spring, so that it can be exposed to a couple of months of cool weather. It is hardy, only suffering some tip dieback in very frosty times. Garlic has been cultivated for over five thousand years, its cultivation in lost in history. It does not appear as a native plant anywhere and it is thought to have been cultivated for so long that it only exists in its cultivated form. When choosing a spot for garlic, try to avoid any ground that has had onions in recent years, at least if the onions have suffered from onion white rot disease of the roots.

Before planting, the ground can have sizeable quantities of very well rotted manure or compost added. This ought to be so well rotted that it is just dark humus with little or no sign  of the plant material from which it was derived. Garlic likes quite rich feeding and although it must have well-drained soil, it likes to have a good supply of moisture and tends to stop growing if it is too dry. Garlic prefers a limy soil, as most vegetables do, and a garden on acid soil will need to be limed every few years to reduce acidity.

Varieties

Most of the garlic grown in gardens is taken from the ordinary garlic in shops, but garden centres sometimes offer garlic for planting and some of the mail order seed houses offer a range of varieties. Some of these varieties are virus-free which improves the plant's performance. ‘Germidour' is a virus-free variety for autumn planting. ‘Messidrome' has large pinkish bulbs for planting in autumn or winter. ‘Sultop' is a French garlic variety with pink cloves and it is planted in early spring. ‘White Pearl' is considered free of viruses and eelworm, and is white-rot resistant. Although these named varieties sometimes appear, mostly garlic bulbs offered for sale are not named even though they may be one of these varieties. Elephant garlic is sometimes also offered and this is really a type of leek more than true garlic. The flavour is garlicky but milder than true garlic, but the bulbs and cloves arr much larger and it is grown in the same way.

Planting

Garlic is planted from the cloves broken out of the bulbs. A bulb might have six to twelve cloves. The bigger ones are best for planting because the smaller ones might only grow enough to make a round, undivided bulb. These are perfectly useable but the yield is low. If, however, these ‘rounds' are kept over to the following autumn and planted, they will give very large bulbs, divided into cloves, the following year.

Decide on the number of bulbs that you would like to have - to use from July until about February. Buy enough bulbs to allow for about six cloves of planting size. They need to be spaced about twenty centimetres apart. They are often planted more closely but there is a better chance of large bulbs at the wider spacing. The rows can be thirty centimetres apart or fifty centimetres from any kind of tall shading vegetables.

Dig the soil over before planting and then pat it back firmly with the back of a spade but do not pack it tight. Plant garlic ten centimetres deep in light soil, about half that in heavier soil. The plants which flower usually produce a few, or many, small bulbils in the flower head. These can be planted and will make ‘rounds' and bulbs in the second year. Or these can be planted in  scattered handfuls to be grown as ‘green garlic' or garlic greens.

Aftercare

Garlic sprouts fairly quickly and the green shoots will show about ground. Their growth over the winter period will depend on the weather. Maintain complete freedom from weeds as garlic is a poor competitor, resulting in small bulbs. In spring and early summer, the plants will need watering during any dry spell of more than a few days. They need a well-drained soil but the risk is that they dry out. If this happens, the plants begin bulbing up prematurely and soon stop growing and wither.

This is a big risk with spring planting, and if spring planting is done, it is best to plant early, in February typically. The advantage of spring planting is that the bulbs have less time to spend in storage and last longer. But generally, better results come from autumn planting. Although many of the plants may produce a flower head, and these can be taken off to improve the size of the bulbs.

Harvesting and storage

When the tops of the garlic plants yellow past halfway, it is time to harvest them. This may happen prematurely because of drought or white rot disease, and the resultant bulbs will be small in both instances. Ideally, the plants should fade gradually - entering summer dormancy, then the best results are obtained. Do not water once the tops begin to yellow as this can reduce the storage quality or the bulbs. Ideally, the lifted bulbs should be of good size with intact skins, not split by over swelling. Loosen the bulbs in the soil with a fork and pull them out.

They are best not left on the soil surface as sunlight can coarser the fine flavour and dampness can cause re-sprouting which renders them useless for storing. The lifted bulbs should be placed in a warm place out of the sunlight to ‘cure', that is to go fully dormant. The skins will dry out and the outer layer can be rubbed off to leave clean bulbs. These are then stored, being careful at all times not to bruise them, in cool place and they make last without shrivelling for as much as eight months, but this depends on variety, storage and handling. The bulbs can be braided, or simply tied in bunches or in small net bags.

Garlic greens, grown from the bulbils or small cloves, and planted in autumn or early spring, make small plants that look like scallions. These can be lifted and used, for their full garlic flavour, in stir-fries and other dishes when large enough.

Pests and diseases

The main trouble with garlic is virus disease. Since it is propagated solely by bulbs, the virus carries. Some stocks are cleaned up or relatively resistant but it is common to see streaking and discoloration in the foliage. White rot of onions affects garlic, sometimes rotting the bulbs but mostly causing root rots that affect the bulb development. Use the biggest bulbs and the biggest cloves at planting.

 

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