How Does Your Garlic Grow

Have you ever noticed the cost of organic garlic? Australian organic garlic retails for around $30 or more a kilo (¬†‚ā¨20/US$22). Other non organic garlic is a little less, while in the latter half of the year, the only garlic available commercially comes via Mexico and Argentina, which looks better than the snow-white¬†mesh bags of Chinese bleached ‘garlic’. I would rather go garlic free than eat these nasty lumps of poison. If you love garlic, choose the best. Source seasonal garlic from a farmers’ market. Flavour and economy are two of the main reasons why I grow my own, but I have to admit, I love harvesting garlic and watching the early colours change from deep crimson and purple to pale white striped mauve after they dry. Beautiful bunches of garlic always remind me of French country markets, alchemy, rustic food and good health. Long live garlic.

Early picked garlic, late October, not fully formed. Use like a spring onion, including the stem.

Growing garlic is time-consuming, which might explain why one head of organic garlic costs around $1.50. I’ll outline the steps here, in laywoman’s terms, for those who may be interested in growing a few. For those without a small patch of earth to dig around in, just enjoy¬†this season’s garlic pics.

Early November. These  garlic bulbs are beginning to show ridges under their outer purple casings. Still a bit small.

When to Plant

I usually start planting out cloves during Autumn, from late April to the end of May and do this in stages, thus staggering the final harvest dates. The old adage which advises that garlic must be planted by the shortest day, winter solstice, works as a rough guide, but I am finding that most of these old guides no longer work for me. If you leave your garlic till June 21st, expect a poor crop or none at all. The temperature of the earth is perfect for garlic in the last month of Autumn, providing just enough warmth to get green shoots going before winter. Given that garlic takes around 6-7 months to mature, it makes more sense to harvest them in late November, rather than during the busy December month. Last year I lost one bed of garlic planted in mid June and I can only put this down to the drop in ground temperature and soggy soil. The little cloves rotted and vanished. Of course the timing of planting will vary from region to region. I live in a cool temperate zone. Tap into local knowledge to find the best time to plant in your own area.

Planting Out

Choose your best looking cloves when planting. Keep some fine specimens from your previous harvest and plant these. If you choose little cloves, you will most likely produce little bulbs. The asexual reproduction of garlic means that what you plant is what you harvest, so choose your cloves wisely. It is said that garlic reproduced in this way will eventually lose its vigour, and that one should revert to seed at some point, a process that takes years. I am yet to notice any loss of vigour in the plants at our current farm. Your soil needs to be fertile and friable. Hard clay isn’t suitable as the little bulbs need to expand easily. Push the flatter end of the cloves into the soil: the top or pointy end should be just below the surface.¬†Plant¬†cloves about 10 cm apart, in rows about 40 cm apart.¬†It’s a good idea to mulch lightly over the soil once the green shoots appear. Organic sugar cane mulch works well. Given that your garlic will be in the ground for at least 6 months, you don’t want them having to compete with weeds for moisture and nutrition. If Winter and early Spring is dry,¬†you’ll need to water the crop. Most of my crop was smaller than average this year. This was due to very low rainfall from late Winter to Spring when we were away and unable to water. Smaller bulbs still taste good but are tedious to peel. These little underground gems need watering just like any other plant. Towards harvest time, hold off watering.

Garlic bulbils

Harvesting

Harvesting occurs when the stalks begin to dry out and seed pods form at the top. I usually dig out a few in early November and start eating the immature specimens, the stalk included. By digging them up occasionally, you’ll be able to gauge¬†their development. If you leave them too long, the cloves begin to separate¬† and open like a flower: while still tasty, these don’t store as well as tightly closed garlic bulbs.

Garlic hangs to dry, pretty bulbils continue to form. Bulbils are not seed but can be used in the same way as cloves. They will take two to three years to mature into big bulbs.

After pulling the garlic, clean the bulbs as soon as possible. I use a damp cloth to remove dirt and baked on mud. It’s important to clean them before bunching and hanging as later cleaning is far more tedious and you don’t want to introduce any dampness to a perfectly dried garlic. Hang the garlic under an airy verandah, well protected from rain and harsh northern sun. They may take a few weeks to thoroughly dry and harden. Well cured garlic will store longer.

Ready to plait or store.

Storing

After drying, the fun begins. Rub away the outer skins and along the stem to reveal the clove shapes. Most of the dark purple papery skin disappears, revealing soft mauve and white underneath. You might like to plait a few if you have grown soft necked garlic. Most of my garlic stems are too hard to bend into plaits so I make a few nice bunches to display in the kitchen. The rest get cut and stored in a dark spot, usually in a close weaved covered basket, or a container that can breathe, or in a hessian sack inside a terracotta pot.

One bunch on display in the kitchen. Because they are hanging in full light, they’ll probably need using before next April. Well stored garlic should last much longer.

I’ve featured photos of bulbils in my header photo and throughout the post.¬†Bulbils¬†form when a scape is allowed to mature. The scape is the stalk growing out of a garlic bulb. Although it is sometimes called a ‘garlic¬†flower’ it is not really a flower. Like cloves from a bulb, bulbils¬†propagate garlic¬†vegetatively and the bulbs that grow from them are clones of the parent plant. This year we found a mysterious bed full of excellent garlic that I definitely did not plant. I vaguely recall throwing around a few handfuls of bulbils around two years ago. During summer, they produced stems that looked more like chives. They grew under the shade of a rampant pumpkin vine. These chive like bunches developed, untouched, over two years, and turned into my star garlic for the year.

A few notes.

The medicinal properties of garlic are well-known. A short paper on the history of garlic used medicinally can be found in the link below.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249897/

But then the Italian contadini always knew this, as these old proverbs corroborate:

  • L‚Äôaglio √® la farmacia dei contadini. Garlic is the peasant farmer’s pharmacy.
  • L‚Äôaglio √® la spezieria dei contadini.¬† The same as above. A ‘spezieria’ was a workshop – laboratory in ancient times where medicines were prepared by an apothecary. The monasteries were famous for their spezierie.Bulbils broken into little gem like cloves.

Garden Monthly, January 2015

Summer gardening in Melbourne is an Yin/Yang experience. We need the heat to bring on the tomatoes, basil and beans: too much, and the plants suffer badly from heat stress. The temperatures soared last week to over¬†40c for two days: this is a taste of what’s around the corner. Melbourne can often experience heat waves of 44 degrees celsius for four days in a row, followed by cooler days in the 30s. On extremely hot days when north winds gust at over 50 km an hour, we self- evacuate in line with the Victorian policy of Leave and Live, which I have mentioned in a previous post. On these days, the¬†garden hangs on, just.

Tomato News. My triffid tomato, the miniature yellow pear, is still growing madly and is covered in hundreds of baby fruit. I will definitely save this seed. My son planted some weird black tomatoes,¬†the seed bought on eBay. They look like some awful deadly nightshade cross between a potato and a tomato. They are still too young to eat so wait for the reports in February. There are six plants so ‘fingers crossed’. The Rouge de Marmande, my favourite tomato, were planted a little late so these fruits won’t appear on the table until February. I forgot to plant a green zebra tomato this year.¬†What an omission; I will miss their green stripes in the the tomato salad bowl.

mini yellow pear tomato.
mini yellow pear tomato.
Spooky black/purple tomato.
Spooky black/purple tomato.

It is definitely the year of the cucumber. I had some old seed to use up a few months ago, and voila, they all came up.  Although not fond of apple cucumbers, I am investigating using them in some lovely Yunnanese dishes, with loads of chilli. I only notice two Lebanese cucumbers for green munching and pickling.

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The strawberries are producing continuously, thanks to the netting which has 20% UV shadecloth, and the addition of mulching with pine needles. At last a use for the dreaded pine trees that inhabit our 20 acre block.

The task of sifting the seed has begun. I found this fabulous sifter in Bas Foods in Brunswick, near Melbourne. A ceelik , I think it is Turkish in origin.

I have saved my own Cos and Red leafed lettuce for years. It germinates in any season and there are always hundreds of seedlings to give away, thus keeping the strain going. The cavolo nero dried seed pods needed splitting open by hand. Seed saving is one of the real pleasures of gardening, knowing that you have selected the best specimen for your own micro climate.

Garlic cleaning has begun. Last year the garlic lasted for 12 months without shooting, thanks to correct storage in the dark, in an airy container. This year, I plan to store them in these old Chinese steamer baskets, covered with hessian, in the larder.

The garlic crop was disappointing in size due to lack of rain in winter and early Spring. Our total rainfall this year was 587mm, compared with 670 mm in 2013 and 711 in 2012. As we are in the midst of an El Nino cycle, watering needs to happen more consistently in Winter and Spring, especially as garlic requires it to fatten up. Winter can often be our driest period. We forget this, thinking that cold equals wet!

I leave all the radicchio to go to seed as the flowers do their job attracting bees and insects for pollinating the tomatoes, pumpkin, cucumber and so on. And their cornflower blue is so stunning.

radicchio flower- bee attractor.
radicchio flower- bee attractor.

Jobs to do: Net the grapes. Mulch the tomato and pumpkin beds, create another green shade cloth bed for lettuce. Remove old seeded silver beets.

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It’s a gardener’s source of inspiration at Lizzie’s The Garden Share Collective every month. Check it out.

Garden Monthly. August 2014.

It’s winter here in Melbourne and the veggie garden was thriving until last week. A few severe frosty mornings set some vegetables back as the temperatures dropped below zero, and snow was recorded in the nearby hills. The leaves on the lime trees are now burnt but will survive. Old Jack Frost has killed off the remaining chilli plants and the rows of new potatoes. The frosts in the last two years seem to be more severe than I can remember in past years.

frost covered patch of turnips and lettuce.
frost covered patch of turnips and lettuce.

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One sad looking potato crop
One sad looking potato crop

Nothing can kill a turnip which has led to a flurry of turnip recipe experiments. I feel like Tess of the d’Urbervilles, grovelling about the turnip rows. Where is my hessian gown and curtained hood? They are mostly added to old fashioned vegetable soups or roasted. ¬†I tried some turnip rostis and I cannot recommend this dish, as gorgeous as it looked topped with sour cream and feathery dill. It was just too turnipy!

Turnips anyone?
Turnips anyone?

The cavolo nero ( black kale) has turned into a perennial triffid and needs staking. I don’t mind. I add the leaves to¬†soups and risotto or cook it then add to¬†orecchiette pasta, the latter with garlic, anchovies, EV olive oil, and chilli flakes.

cavolo nero or tuscan kale.
cavolo nero or Tuscan kale.

The lettuces are nice and crisp in winter. The Cos are prolific as are the red and copper leafed varieties which are self-sown.

self seeded lettuce
self seeded lettuce

These broccoli were grown from old seed thrown into a bed in late¬†March. ¬†We are slowly working our way through the heads and looking forward to some side shoots. Some years ago, I kept a broccoli plant going for 18 months, eating lovely side shoots the whole time. The trick to semi perennial broccoli? Never let the plants flower. This works well if you don’t get that nasty little white butterfly in summer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFreshly picked broccoli is nothing like its woody retail counterpart. It only needs two minutes in boiling water, drained, then tossed about in additional chosen flavours. A simple Neil Perry Recipe can be found here. I also love them tossed with a little oil, garlic, soy sauce and a pinch of sugar.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In late May, I moved a whole lot of plants into a perennial bed, artichoke and rhubarb for example. They enjoyed a winter dormant spell and are showing signs of recovering for Spring.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The To Do List is always too long.

  • Mulch the garlic before the Spring weeds get a hold.
  • Manure and mulch the perennial bed of rhubarb.
  • Finish off the third compost bin and begin the fourth.
  • Prepare spare beds for Spring planting with ready compost covered with mulch.
  • Espalier the fruit trees in the second chicken run orchard. Urgent Mr T!
  • Gather more cow manure from the front paddocks to add to the compost bins with dried leaves and green matter.

And on a sad note, here is my favourite Dexter cow, Derry, who gave birth last Sunday to a beautiful shiny black calf. Sadly the calf couldn’t stand to suckle due to a crippled leg. The vet instructed us to take the inevitable course of action. ¬†Derry is our lawnmower, pet and keeps us in manure. She has recovered.

Derry the Dexter.
Derry the Dexter.