Wild Garlic: How to forage it, and how to grow your own

If you are new to foraging, wild garlic is the ideal place to start says Mark Diacono.

As Spring pokes the tip of its nose out from under winter’s blanket, my wife and I — and, if the promise of cake has proved compelling, our daughter — take to coastal woods in search of damp, half shade and the magic that lies within.

We may not be the only ones: there are often others with basket, sharp knife and a hopeful gaze after ‘their’ patch of wild garlic (Allium ursinum, also known as ramsons). This annual pilgrimage carries much significance now: as well as being one of the few forages we have long done as a family, it soaks us all in optimism that perhaps winter really is soon to be behind us.

If you are new to — and perhaps a little nervous of — foraging, wild garlic is a good place to start. Its wide green tongues are easy to identify; although a few plants (including lily of the valley) look superficially similar, none has its characteristic bright garlic scent. The bulbs, buds and flowers are all edible, but it is the young leaves that are the primary harvest.

Rather than pulling up the plant, slicing through the leaves an inch or so above ground allows the plant to persist and new leaves to grow; it only takes us 15 minutes at most to cut a basketful. We take care to pick from a patch a few steps from the path to avoid dog pee, but, when home, I always soak the leaves in the sink for a quarter of an hour or so to dislodge rogue leaves and other woodland detritus. As with salad leaves and lettuces, this also conditions them, extending their shelf life. Drained, dried and bagged, wild garlic will last at least a week in the bottom of the fridge.

The leaves lose much of their bright, fresh flavour if overcooked: a handful briefly wilted into scrambled eggs provides the reward once we are back indoors, with pesto making and wild-garlic ravioli likely to follow. I freeze a few handfuls, briefly blanched, to use another time. You may find buds and/or white flowers in the harvest: both are very good in tempura or for adding a little punch and contrast in leafy salads.

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Wild garlic will also thrive in your garden. There are few plants that do so well in damp shade, especially providing delicious ground cover, too, but wild garlic will grow well in sunnier spots and in a well-drained soil, although avoid anywhere too dry. Bear in mind that the shadier the spot, the longer the harvest season, often stretching into early summer, and that once summer’s heat crosses an invisible threshold, the leaves vanish back to the bulb, reappearing in the new year.

Wild garlic is easy to grow from seed or young plants. I am usually in favour of shortening the journey from planting to eating, so, in my own garden and when designing and planting others, I almost always start with young plants. For those with more patience, sow seeds undercover in March, keep the compost lightly moist and germination should occur one to two weeks later. Transplant to their final location four weeks later allowing 4in between plants. You can sow them direct in May. Allow plants to go unharvested for the first year to get established, removing the flower spikes as they appear to direct the plant’s energies to developing well.

Once growing, wild garlic will reach 16in–20in high and give you several cuts in the heart of the season, from March to the end of May, with a week or two either side, depending on location and weather. It forms dense colonies over time by multiplying its underground bulbs. It can spread at a reasonable rate in the encouraging conditions of a beech woo and, although this happens at a much slower pace — if at all — in your garden, you can always lift and remove any bulbs threatening to spread into unwanted territory.

You may wonder why you should bother growing wild garlic when it can be so abundant in the wild. Firstly, as much as I enjoy foraging, having a little on your doorstep to use at short notice is so good; secondly, many parts of the country (for example, the dry South-East) have little wild garlic growing naturally; and thirdly, it can be the perfect answer if you are looking to colonise a shady, damp spot with something delicious and perennial — and that attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Mark Diacono grows edibles, both usual and unusual, at Otter Farm in Devon (www.otterfarm.co.uk). His latest book is ‘From Scratch: Ferment’ (Quadrille, £12.99)