On a whim at the end of last year I planted a bag of garlic that I purchased from the clearout tray at Homebase. Jamie Oliver‘s latest packaged item announced an extended season of garlic, what could be better?

Growing a garlic crop is immensely satisfying and can be done with limited time or space which is how I first came to grow it in a pot on a patio in London. I think that time I used some left over cloves straight from the fridge which in hindsight is not ideal but it works. Subsequent forays have used bulbs from reputable growers and seed merchants!

I read somewhere about it being traditional to plant it on the shortest day of the year (Winter Solstice – 21/22 December) and harvest on the longest day (Summer Solstice 21/22 June). Basically that’s aiming for a good 6 months in the ground, plenty of time for the cloves to plump up and multiply. I aim to get it in before the year end, especially if it is going into the ground which has the potential to be frozen solid from January – luckily for us last winter (2011/2012) was so mild that planting was possible for all but a few days.

Garlic, like many root crops prefers well drained, not overly rich soil. I have a loamy clay so digging in some organic matter and a bit of grit works well to give them a good start.

Breaking up the bulb into individual cloves and setting them out at about 15cm (6 inches) apart and 5cm (2 inches). Now I am not one of those people who takes a measuring stick with me. Over the years I have worked out my body measurements and know that my right index finger from tip to 1st knuckle is about 5cm and the span of my thumb to little finger with middle fingers down is about 17cm (middle fingers up it’s 20cm…) and so I use them as a rough guide to planting distances.

Go on, measure your own hands, booted feet, normal stride, extended stride and so on you’ll be amazed how useful these dimensions can be in veg growing and planting. Incidentally try placing your bare foot along your forearm, elbow to wrist, it is supposed to be about the same distance.

So back to garlic planting approx 15cm apart and 5cm down in rows 15cm apart. Plant cloves with the  fatter end down. The row spacing also allows for easier hoeing of weeds. As I only had 1 Elephant garlic clove I didn’t have to worry about increasing the planting spaces but you can adjust spacing ; up/down per general clove size; larger/smaller

There are many excellent varieties of garlic and quite a few British growers including several from the Isle of Wight. Jamie’s pack included Purple Wight (early), Iberian Wight and Elephant all of which have excellent flavour, are easy to grow and the range will give me a longer season of cropping.

In spring  as the weather starts warming up shoots will begin to appear. As with any oniony sort of crop once it pokes it’s first leaf up it is tempting to passing birds to pull out and throw about – they never seem to eat it just play with it! So if you have a playful local bird population use small chicken wire arches or fleece to protect it at this stage.

Garlic does like water, with standard British weather there shouldn’t be much need for watering but if you have a dry spell, drought or you’re growing them in very sandy soil they will need some extra watering, regular intervals are best.

That’s it for growing, not much to do but watch and wait and hoe those weeds.

Once the tops go yellow and begin to dry out it’s time to think about harvesting. I usually harvest all at once if I am going to dry and store them, though odd bulbs for fresh use come out as and when required. Wait until at least 50% of the crop is ready and then lift them carefully with a fork. Remove dirt and place them somewhere to dry thoroughly. If we’re having a corker of a summer this could be outside, but in reality they need about 2 weeks of completely dry sunny weather to thoroughly dry out so in the UK possibly better to find a more reliably dry, airy spot.

Once dried cut off the roots and  you can plait them and hang them up for use, saving a bulb or two for next years crop.

Here’s how to plait…

I will be saving at least half the Elephant for next year, that’s if it deigns to come up this year!

Here’s how to eat…

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