How to grow garlic: Delicious, lucky and superbly easy to cultivate

Mark Diacono teaches us how to grow garlic, revealing that it's surprisingly easy once you know the right tricks...

If you believe the myths, garlic is so much more than a delicious food. Legend has it that those who eat garlic are bestowed with luck, protection and good fortune; explorers in Asia supposedly ate garlic before walking through mountain passes to ward off tigers and, of course, it is well known as a repellent of Dracula. The fact that I have had no bother from either wild cats or vampires in my garden would appear to support this.

The primary compound that we (and, presumably, vampires) experience in garlic is allicin. Strangely, the plant’s defence against animals tempted to have an inquisitive nibble is exactly what turns many of us ravenous in an instant when we smell it cooking. It is also responsible for garlic being antibacterial, blood-thinning, cholesterol-lowering, and detoxifying.

‘It would be criminal not to grow it’

On the face of it, there seem to be plenty of perfectly good reasons not to bother growing your own garlic. It’s relatively cheap to buy, for example, and it keeps well. That said, the intensity and complexity of homegrown garlic is so different from shop-bought bulbs. Growing your own is not only easy, but it also gives you the opportunity of using your garlic ‘green’. Green garlic is a sweeter, gentler version of dried garlic, enhancing other ingredients without being quite so pronounced.

It would be criminal not to grow it, I think, as the early-summer harvests that coincide with its readiness – everything from lamb to broad beans, new potatoes to peas – make superb partners.

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Although it may not be obvious when buying bulbs in the shops, garlic comes in two main types: hardneck and softneck. Hard-necks produce flowers readily and tend to form large bulbs of strongly flavoured cloves that keep only until midwinter. Softnecks are often milder, producing bulbs with a larger number of smaller cloves, that can be stored well into winter and even into spring when harvested from later sowings.

Most varieties of garlic for growing at home are of fine flavour (another upside), so it’s important to focus on reliability.

I am growing two dependable, soft-necked French varieties this year – Germidour and Messidor. Both mature early, from June, with Germidour having a rich, mild taste, and Messidor being more strongly flavoured. It also dries well in autumn and stores for months.

‘Wild garlic may well be the most commonly foraged plant in the UK, with good reason’

Both are reliable, but Messidor has particularly strong root growth, which makes it a great choice for cold areas and difficult growing conditions. I always grow Elephant garlic, too. Although botanically closer to a leek than true garlic, this monster – with bulbs usually 10cm (4in) across – has a sweet, generous garlic flavour and is superb roasted whole.

There are alternative sources of that wonderful garlic flavour, too. After blackberries and elderflower, wild garlic may well be the most commonly foraged plant in the UK, with good reason. Its leaves have a full, yet mild flavour and cutting them does little to slow the plants’ vigour. Of the numerous other alliums that carry that garlic taste, my favourites are garlic chives and Tulbaghia – also known as society garlic. The latter flowers prolifically from April until October, with these pink/purple bell flowers the only edible part of the plant – and very delicious they are too.

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Sourcing Ensure the bulbs you buy are certified virus free. Don’t try growing from cloves you’ve bought in the shops, as most are grown overseas and are prone to viruses.

Mark’s top tips to successfully grow garlic

Position:  Sunny, in a well-drained soil.

Growing:  If your garlic for sowing comes as a bulb, separate it into cloves, discarding the tiny ones at the centre. Sow 7cm (3in) deep (a little more for Elephant) with the flat end downwards, allowing 15cm (6in) between them, and with rows a minimum of 20cm (8in) apart. Sow from now until March. Water during dry spells until early summer, but no later, as this can lead to rot.

Potential problems:  If your garlic runs to flower, cut off the stem to concentrate the plant’s energies towards developing a good-sized bulb. Rust can be a problem; grow garlic in a new spot each year to minimise the risk.

Harvest:  Expect a summer harvest. Early-sown cloves will produce larger, slightly earlier bulbs. Lift bulbs from June to use immediately as green garlic or wait until any leaves turn yellow. Once lifted, allow the bulbs to dry in the sun for a couple of days, then store indoors somewhere cool. Dried garlic will last for four months, often longer. 

Mark Diacono grows edibles, both usual and unusual, at Otter Farm in Devon, www.otterfarm.co.uk.