Garlic is a great crop to grow. Buying good quality garlic can be difficult as much of the garlic sold in New Zealand is imported and of poor quality. Garlic is relatively easy to grow, doesn’t take up much room in a garden, it’s easy to store and it’s decorative so is fantastic for a home garden.
Here are some tips for growing great garlic.
Firstly it’s essential to plant good quality seed garlic. Koanga has a range of different varieties, all heritage varieties proven to do well in New Zealand.
If you’ve only ever had store bought garlic you’d be forgiven for thinking all garlic is the same shape and white. That’s not the case though – garlic comes in many different varieties and colours.
Rocombole garlic is rarely grown commercially. We have three rocomboles available – Early Red, Early White and New Zealand Purple. Rocombole garlics form a bulb with a circle of even sized, usually large, cloves distributed around a hard central stem. The added bonus of rocomboles is that the flower stems (known as scapes) can be harvested when young and eaten so this means an extra crop from those varieties. Removing the scapes also tends to increase bulb size so its a win win situation. We love eating them, they are particularly good in a stir fry and have a garlic flavour with a texture reminiscent of asparagus. The other excellent thing about scapes is that they are ready in the springtime which can be a lean time in the garden as autumn and winter crops have finished and the summer crops are yet to kick in.
We also have two varieties of soft-neck garlic available; Takahue Red and Soft Top Pearl. These varieties don’t produce a hard stem and often have more cloves than rocomboles although of less even size. Takahue Red and Soft Top Pearl often produce large cloves and both are good, strong, medicinal garlics.
If that isn’t enough choice we also have Elephant Garlic. Strictly speaking Elephant Garlic isn’t a garlic – botanically it is a leek. It does however produce very large cloves with a mild garlic flavour that are excellent, particularly for roasting. It doesn’t have the medicinal qualities of the real garlics but is a great garden addition. It too produces flower shoots that can be eaten and are delicious.
This year we have also have a new garlic which we are very excited about. Ahipara garlic was found growing wild on the Ahipara gumfields. It looks similar to elephant garlic but produces aerial bulbils (which Elephant Garlic doesn’t). As I’m writing this (in December 2016) my first crop looks fantastic with flowering stems that are nearly a metre high. The flower stems could be harvested and eaten but I’m going to leave them to form their bulbils this year.
As with other crops it’s good to have diversity in garlic planting as different types have different attributes but also diversity increases resilience. Rocombole garlics are viewed by many garlic connoisseurs as having the best flavour but, although they will store for a few months, won’t store as long as most soft-neck garlics. So its good to grow more than one type.
The next thing to consider is soil preparation. Garlic needs fertile, well drained but moist soil to do well. We add compost, well rotted manure, Natures Garden Fertilisers and lime to well prepared garden beds in sunny position. Garlic doesn’t like weed competition so we try to prepare our beds early and allow any weed seeds to sprout and be hoed off before we plant the garlic. Don’t plant your garlic in the same bed every year, it needs to be on a 3 year cycle to prevent build up of fungal spores and other pests.
There seem to be very firm ideas about when to plant garlic with conventional wisdom being to plant on the winter solstice and harvest on the summer solstice. We’ve experimented with different times and it’s clear that the best time to plant varies according to both the location and the variety of garlic being planted. Up here in the Far North we plant the Early Rocombole garlics in late April / May and the other varieties in June. I have a friend who grows excellent Takahue Red garlic in the Eastern Bay of Plenty and she plants hers in August. The best time to plant will be between April and August and it’s a good idea to work out what’s best in your area rather than slavishly follow conventional wisdom.
Garlic can be planted in rows or on diagonal spacings. Carefully break up the bulbs into cloves – it is cloves that are planted, not whole unbroken bulbs. We use diagonal spacings to postition the cloves. Kay plants at 10cm spacings which gives her 100 plants per metre in a metre wide bed. We space our garlic wider at approximately 15cm spacings which seems to work better in our garden.
After planting we mulch with partially rotted hay that has been left outside for several weeks. Mulching helps to suppress the weeds but also to protect the soil during heavy rain and to help keep moisture in during dry periods. Here in the Far North we do tend to have very heavy rain over winter and then the ground can quickly dry out in spring so mulching works well for us. It pays to be a bit careful not to bring in very weedy mulch to your garden (although partially rotting the mulch helps with that) and also to keep an eye on the garlic when first planted to make sure the mulch isn’t too thick and is preventing the shoots coming through. That’s important particularly if the weather is very wet soon after planting as the mulch can become sodden and matted. It’s quite easy though to slightly move the mulch to allow the growing stem through.
Once the garlic is growing remove weeds that do appear, liquid and foliar feed occasionally and make sure the soil doesn’t dry out particularly as the bulbs are forming. We find it tends to get quite dry quite quickly here in early spring so need to water occasionally then. Stop watering as the tops turn brown though.
Garlic is harvested as the leaves start to turn brown, usually around 6 months after planting. We fork the garlic out of the bed and remove the soil from the roots. We lay it out on the bed in the sunshine for a few hours and then move it to our tunnel house to dry further. It needs a dry place under cover that has plenty of air movement and our tunnel house is excellent for this as it doesn’t have ends on so allows a good air flow.
It’s important to keep the tops attached to the bulbs for curing and storing. We grow lots of garlic so hang it in our barn but in a household situation it could easily be bunched or plaited and hung in a kitchen.
Before hanging I grade our garlic. The best bulbs are saved for next years seed and are hung in a dry, airy place. The rest is for eating. Any damaged or unhealthy looking bulbs are put aside for eating soon and the rest is hung to to be used later. It’s very important to hang the seed garlic away from the eating garlic to avoid risking the seed being eaten!
We use garlic in most cooking – stews, soups, sauces, stir fries, roasts etc. But it’s also very important as a medicinal herb. As antibiotic resistance becomes more widespread having easily grown herbs with good antibiotic qualities will become increasingly important and garlic has these properties. We also use it with our livestock (usually along with cider vinegar) for digestive and worm problems but also as a general health support.
So if you haven’t grown garlic before it really is a good crop to try and if you have grown it then trying another variety is always fun.