Is an essential flavour in countless dishes, so why not have garlic fresh and organic in your own garden? Janie Varkulevicius shows us how...
If you haven’t planted your garlic yet, it’s high time you did. Garlic, like onions, is a day-length-sensitive crop, so autumn is the time to plant.
Looking back to the 1950s and 60s, garlic was barely used in Australia; now, thanks to the culinary influences of so many migrants from the Mediterranean and elsewhere, garlic has become an essential in every Australian kitchen.
We consume about 3500 tonnes of fresh garlic every year yet much of it is imported. This means it has to be treated with powerful, often toxic chemicals, such as methyl bromide, that attack the nervous system. Our quarantine laws demand this treatment in order to kill any biological or fungal threats to our farming industry. So the obvious answer is to grow your own garlic and avoid these toxins.
Eating fresh garlic improves heart health by lowering bad cholesterol in the bloodstream, reduces high blood pressure and combats infection. Just one or two fresh garlic cloves a day can promote good health, whereas processed minced, dried or powdered garlic does not give the same benefits.
Garlic is day-length-sensitive, which means that as daylight hours are declining as we head towards winter, the plants put on vegetative growth, producing leaves and roots. The spring equinox, September 21/22, marks the time when daylight hours begin to lengthen and the bulbing phase of garlic growth is initiated.
The size of the bulb or head of garlic is determined by the amount of leaves and roots the young plants have at this stage. The more leaves, the bigger the harvested bulb will be.
Planting and soil preparation
Garlic prefers a rich, well-drained soil that has been well dug over with no hard lumps to inhibit the new root growth.
In sandy soils some extra potash will be beneficial, but usually ample nitrogen and phosphate will suffice. A pH of between 6 and 7 will allow these nutrients to be available to the plants.
Blood and bone is rich in these nutrients, so dig in about a 2mm layer over your planting area — a heavy sprinkle — and incorporate it into the soil.
You can buy your garlic “seed” (in other words the cloves) from the greengrocer or purchase virus-tested cloves from nurseries or mail-order companies.
Break up your heads of garlic and separate the cloves. Choose the fattest cloves to plant, pointy end up, about 5–7cm deep. The skinny, small cloves will not be as vigorous.
Break the bulb into cloves. Plant only the large cloves (right) not the small ones (centre).
Plant the selected cloves about 10cm apart with roughly 20cm between your rows. This should give you about 50 plants for just one square metre — a good yield for such a small space.
Garlic has a very dense surface root system that can dry out quickly and is easily damaged by cultivation. As it offers little competition for weeds, garlic beds should be kept as weed-free as possible. Therefore a good mulching after planting is essential.
Compost such as mushroom compost or seaweed is ideal. Tea leaves and coffee grounds are also good as long as they do not compact and form a crust. Use your own and make friends with your local café — they may be kind enough to save some for you.
Whatever mulch you use, keep the bed weed-free and avoid deep cultivation around the plants.
In late winter/early spring, a side-dressing of blood and bone will keep those leaves and roots growing. Take care not to fertilise after the spring equinox (September 21), as the increase in day-length initiates bulb growth and leaf growth ceases. Once bulbing commences, an over-abundance of nitrogen (as in blood and bone) will lead to soft bulbs that will not store well.
Depending on where you live, harvest times will vary. In NSW it can be as early as November or in Tasmania as late as December/January. Victoria and South Australia are somewhere in the middle.
As the time approaches, keep an eye on your garlic and reduce watering, as an over-moist soil can lead to rotting bulbs.
Your garlic plants will show you when they need to be lifted; when the tops start to yellow and the neck of the bulb starts to get soft and papery it’s getting to the right time. When the plant
has about four or five green leaves left it is time to harvest.
The bases of these leaves form the “tissue-paper” covering to the bulb. If you leave them longer they may open up and split.
The most important step in storing your garlic is to dry and cure it well. Choose a dry, airy spot to hang your plaits or use old orange (net) bags to hold your bulbs. Keep them cool and dry.
Queensland gardeners can find growing garlic challenging. In subtropical regions the day-length does not vary widely as it does further south. The cultivars Glenlarge and Southern Glen are good selections for the subtropics as they are day-neutral.
The hard-neck cultivars, those that produce a flower head or scape, grow best in areas with cold winters. They have a superior flavour but will store for only 3–4 months. Soft-neck garlic is easy to plait (there is no stiff flower stem), can be stored for 6–8 months and performs well in milder climes.
There are many cultivars to choose from, so get on the net or consult your local nursery.