Garlic is best planted between November and April although you will generally get a bigger and better crop if you plant it in the autumn. Garlic bulbs are sold according to their suitability for spring or autumn planting. Once you have bought bulbs you can save the best best specimens every year and plant the cloves. You will then produce your own locally adapted crop.
You may see garlic referred to as 'Hardneck' or 'Softneck' - this simply refers to the way the garlic grows:
This type of garlic produces a flower stem (referred to as a 'scape'), which can be removed and used in salads and stir fries. Hardneck varieties are ideal if you want to grow garlic scapes but still want a crop of garlic bulbs too. The bulbs produced by hardneck varieties don't store as well as softneck varieties but they often have unique qualities. Growers recommend 'Lautrec Wight' becasue it produces pretty bulbs with deep pink cloves.
We have planted 'Elephant Garlic' can be planted in both spring and autumn and it produces giant bulbs but we are not so keen on the favour. It can be a little bitter.
'Chesnok Red' has a creamy texture and is ideal for roasting.
'Early Purple Wight' is one of the earliest autumn planting varieties and is ready to harvest in May.
This type of garlic does not produce a flower stem and will store for much longer than the hardneck varieties. Growers recommend 'Wight Cristo' becasue it produces good uniform crops. 'Albigensian Wight' has excellent keeping qualities. 'Cledor' is high yielding and produces 10-16 cloves per bulb. 'Germidour' is reported to be very reliable with a slightly milder flavour. 'Picardy Wight' is suitable for spring or autumn planting and produces strong flavoured bulbs.
Years ago Patrick Whitefield told Tim and I that garlic was the single most economically viable crop you can grow in a small space. We love garlic and eat a lot of it so we decided to test the theory. We had been self-sufficient in garlic for a number of years and it really saved a lot of money. Last summer was so damp, however, that for the first time ever our garlic crop failed. It rotted in the ground.
Tim was forced to buy bulbs to plant for next year from our favoured supplier, the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm, which is a fine example of rural enterprise just over the Solent from us. He decided to experiment with two varieties, Picardy Wight and Tuscany Wight and replant our old favouite, Solent Wight.
This is what the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm says about Picardy Wight (allium sativum - softneck):
"Originating in the fields of Picardy, growing on the battlefields of the Somme and the surrounding area. Adapted to cooler and wetter conditions, will grow anywhere in the UK that has proved a challenge to other garlic. In its native region it is plaited and smoked due to its longevity. Harvested after mid July it will keep to May the following year. Best planted in December / January."
Tuscany Wight (allium sativum - softneck) they describe as follows, "This large white garlic is a late type like Venetian and Solent Wight. Harvest in July. A new spring planted softneck from Tuscany. Good keeping quality and most significant of all, big fat cloves all the way through the bulb. May prove in future to be the most popular garlic we sell."
Lastly, here's the description of Solent Wight (allium sativum - softneck). "Mid July Harvest. Autumn and spring planting though early spring is best. Our best garlic in terms of overall eating and keeping quality. Hard dense bulbs that exude a presence of their own. Long keeping – to April and beyond. Elegant bouquet that retains its flavour during cooking. Large white, bulbs that are easy to plait. Most attractive garlic plaited and hung in the kitchen. December / January planting best but will crop well from end of March planting."
We can certainly vouch for the flavour and the lengevity fo this bulb although it didn't cope with the awful weather last summer, hence experimenting with the other two varieties.
I also have some Elephant Garlic that survived the wet and I will pop that in too.
How to plant garlic in the ground
Garlic prefers a position in full sun with a well drained, light soil. Garlic bulbs do not tolerate water logging, so add in plenty of organic matter such as compost, well rotted manure or recycled green waste before planting. This will also provide nutrients for your garlic.
Carefully split the bulb into individual cloves and plant each clove 2.5cm (1 inch) below the surface of the soil with the pointed end facing up (so the bulb sits just below the soil surface). Plant each clove 15cm (6 inches) apart and in rows 30cm (12 inches) apart. You may find birds are tempted to pull your garlic out of the ground when it is freshly planted so it is a good idea to cover the area with netting after planting.
If you live in very cold areas or your soil is heavy then plant the cloves into module trays during the winter. Fill the tray with multi-purpose peat-free compost and place one clove 2.5cm (1 inch) deep in each module; covering the cloves with more compost afterwards. Garlic needs a cold period to grow successfully so place the module tray in a sheltered position outdoors. Garlic grown in this way can be planted out to its final position in the spring when the cloves have sprouted.
Growing garlic in pots and containers
Growing garlic in a pot is ideal for those with patios and balconies. The pot will need to be at least 20cm (8 inches) in diameter with a similar depth, to allow for good root growth. Simply fill your chosen container with multi-purpose compost and incorporate some fertiliser.
Plant each clove at a depth of 2.5cm (1 inch) and space them 15cm (6 inches) apart, allowing space for the bulbs to swell (don't plant too close to the container edge). Make sure the compost remains moist, especially during dry spells.
For something a bit different you could even try growing garlic indoors on a windowsill to provide garlic leaves, which have a milder flavour than the bulb and can be added to soups, curries and stir fries. Harvest the leaves as required until the bulb has been exhausted. However, growing garlic indoors is not usually a successful method for cultivating good quality garlic bulbs. Watch the video below to find out more about how to grow garlic in containers:
Caring for your garlic
Garlic is pretty robust but it needs to be kept weed free. If you notice flowers forming you can remove them or leave them intact, either way this should not affect the swelling of the bulb.
VITAL TIP! Do not let your garlic dry out in a drought. If it lacks water it will go dormant and the bulbs will not grow to a good size. So whilst you want well drained soil so it doesn't rot, you also want it to be irrigated in dry spells.
There are two diseases which you may find symptoms of on your garlic crop: rust and white rot. Rust appears as rusty coloured spots on the leaves and there is no cure apart from avoiding growing garlic in the same place for 3 years. We always rotate our best anyway. Garlic can also be affected by white rot, which decays the roots and eventually the bulb. Again there is no cure apart from crop rotation.
Harvesting your garlic
Autumn-planted garlic will be ready to harvest in June and July and spring-planted garlic will be ready slightly later. Simply wait until the leaves have started to wither and turn yellow, and then loosen the bulbs from the soil with a trowel. Be careful not to damage the garlic bulbs with your trowel as this will reduce their storage potential. Also be careful not to leave the bulbs in the ground too long after the leaves have withered as the bulbs are likely to re-sprout and may rot when stored.
Lay the garlic bulbs out somewhere warm and dry before storing them. Any dry soil left on the bulbs can be gently brushed off. We store our garlic for up to a year in a cool damp store by hanging it from hooks on the ceiling either in platts.
The Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight is open for visitors. You can buy an amazing range of chutneys and other garlic products. They also supply garlic bulbs by mail order.
A simple monthly guide: Charles Dowding's Veg Journal