Why Not Grow Garlic?
Updated: Feb 18, 2022
It's easy to grow garlic in the ground or in containers but it isn't something most people consider when starting to grow their own.
If you have limited space I always think it's worth growing the highest value food crops that you can. If you only have room for a couple of containers on your balcony I suggest potatoes isn't the best use of space as they're always easy to get hold of and cheap.
Garlic however is quite expensive, doesn't take up much room to grow and keeps well for months. It doesn't suffer from pests and diseases so is a great crop for the beginner too.
Garlic bulbs plaited for storage and ready to use.
What sort should I grow?
My original garlic was from a market in the South of France and I have been growing that same garlic for nearly 30 years. If you always keep the biggest bulbs for planting the next crop you will never need to buy more. You can use bulbs from the supermarket as long as they're not smoked or treated in any way or you can buy named 'seed' garlic from suppliers, they will all grow fine. If you are thinking of 'elephant' garlic it will need considerably more space and soil depth so probably not best for containers. It produces large, onion sized bulbs but I found the ones I grew were a bit bitter so I stopped growing those.
When and how should I plant it?
There's a tradition that says "Plant garlic on the shortest day and harvest on the longest day". That may work well in the South of France or even Kent, but in Cumbria it does need a bit longer. I always aim to have my garlic planted by the beginning of November.
Break up your garlic bulbs and always use the biggest cloves for planting use the rest in the kitchen. Poke holes in the soil 2" - 3" deep and 4" - 5" apart. If the soil is dry and the holes fill up when you pull the dibber out, just lightly water the top layer before you dib.
Your Garlic should start to show itself by the end of January
Put 1 clove into each hole with the pointy bit uppermost and fill in over the cloves. Garlic likes a rich soil so I always cover the bed with a good mulch of manure. it doesn't even need to be well rotted for garlic but the rain will wash the nutrients down to the roots over a long period.
Healthy looking garlic crop in May
When do I harvest it?
Traditionally you plant garlic on the shortest day and harvest on the longest day. This may be OK in Mediterranean climates but I always wait until July before I start pulling them, just one at a time, to use. Once the foliage has mostly gone yellow you can lift the rest and lay them out to dry on a rack off the ground in an airy place out of the rain. Plaiting them is a good way to keep them long term as it lets air circulate to reduce the likelyhood of mould.
A year's garlic harvest lifted in August and ready for drying
We use alot of garlic so planting up a raised bed, about 120 x 350cms gives us about 120 bulbs. The following May/June, any that are left in storage are desperately trying to sprout so you'll need to use them quickly. I do pickle them in a sweet vinegar (delicious) but my favourite is this wonderful Ottolenghi garlic soup. I have addapted it slightly and I'm sure you'll do the same. It is truly my favourite soup of all time and well worth the effort of all that peeling and chopping! The saffron, garlic and thyme combine to create an extraordinary rich and luxurious flavour. I make triple batches and freeze it.
•4 medium onions or shallots
•3 celery sticks
•40g butter (just use more olive oil to do a vegan version)
•2 tablespoons olive oil
•25 garlic cloves, finely sliced
•2 teaspoons ginger root, coarsely chopped
•1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
•200ml white wine
1 medium potato (my addition, gives it a bit of thickness)
•good pinch of saffron threads
•4 bay leaves
•1 litre vegetable stock
•Large handful of fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1. Chop and slice the onions/shallots and celery, then gently sauté with olive oil and butter in a saucepan for around ten minutes, until the shallots have softened.
2. Peel and slice the garlic (or chop in a food processor if you can't face prepping twenty-five cloves!) and add to the pan with the shallots to cook for five minutes or so.
3. Stir in the chopped ginger root and thyme leaves, then pour in the wine and let the mix, simmer briefly before adding the bay leaves, saffron, potato and vegetable stock. Bring this back to a gentle boil and let the soup simmer until the potato is soft.
4. Take out the bay leaves and add the chopped parsley, then blend the soup in a food processor - or use a stick blender. Season if needed.
Ottolenghi serves it with harissa but I don't think it needs anything else.