Garlic, wrote Mrs. Beeton in her Victorian era Book of Household Management, “is the most acrimonious of the whole of all the alliaceous tribe”.
Thank goodness that attitude is history! Today, garlic has become so popular that several garlic festivals have sprouted up. That’s good news for gardeners who want to try growing their own this fall, which is the best time for planting this “most acrimonious” bulb.
Bob Litke, a collector who grows more than 100 varieties of garlic on his farm near Nithburg, Ontario, started growing “just for fun” when a neighbour gave him two bulbs.
“It’s important to pass garlic along to friends and family,” Litke advises, “to preserve diversity and continue the strains our grandparents might have brought from the old country.”
Peter McClusky, director of the Toronto Garlic Festival and a passionate garlic grower himself, adds that rather than growing from imported grocery store types, Ontario-grown garlic from a farmer’s market or garlic festival is a better option for planting. “They will not have been exposed to the damaging temperatures of a refrigerated truck and are already acclimatized,” he explains, adding that there’s more choice of strains from local markets and festivals, too.
Both McClusky and Litke agree that garlic grows best in full sun – as much as eight hours daily if possible.
“The more the better,” says Litke who also recommends growing in well-drained soil because “garlic hates water”. In heavy clay soils, a raised bed can provide the drainage garlic demands – add plenty of compost and organic matter to enrich the soil and to promote good drainage.
“Plant the cloves eight inches apart,” Litke advises, “about two inches below the surface of the ground.”
Keeping weeds at bay is also important for growing the best garlic.
“I’ve used spoiled hay and straw as mulch,” says Litke, who adds that fallen leaves, easily found on city streets in the fall, also make good mulch.
There are two types of garlic: hard- and soft-necked, and many varieties within these two main groups. Hard-necked garlic produces “scapes” in June. The tips of these rounded green shoots contain miniature flowers and bulbils.
“This is how garlic reproduces in the wild,” explains Litke.
In cultivation, though, it’s important to cut off the scapes to direct the plants’ energy into producing larger bulbs. Scapes have become popular in cooking, and in garlic grower and author Sonia Day’s latest book, Incredible Edibles, 43 Fun Things To Grow
In The City. A Canadian Cookbook Awards nominee, Day offers a recipe for garlic scape pesto.
Silverskins are the most prevalent type of soft-neck garlic. They’re often braided, as they’re easier to work with than hard-neck types.
“Commercial growers prefer softnecks,” explains McClusky, “because they are less labour intensive to grow and store for long periods.”
However, hard-neck garlic will keep for many months if stored between 10 and 20 degrees in a fairly dry, dark spot. All garlic, though, must be air cured before storing.
“I put a tie around three stalks,” says Litke, “and hang the bunch in an airy space out of the sun.”
It’s easy to get hooked on growing garlic. Liz Primeau, founding editor of Canadian Gardening discovered garlic when she was 17 years old and her experiences form the basis of her forthcoming book, In Pursuit of Garlic: An intimate look at a divinely odorous bulb. Due out in January 2012, it covers the origins and history of garlic, garlic in literature, fables and medicine, plus how to grow and cook with it.
Surrounded with cloves of garlic, Lorraine Flanigan writes from her garden in the South Eglinton neighbourhood of Toronto.