When you grow your own garlic you have not only a much more flavourful crop, but you have access to the lovely summer garlic, where the outer layers have not yet turned to paper and are still moist and succulent. The flavour of summer garlic is really worth getting into before you harvest your main crop and also one of the best reasons to grow your own.
Garlic has been one of our most successful crops, last season we had some unused space next to the driveway, in a strip just 20cm wide but about 10m long we planted two rows of garlic. The soil along there was pretty compacted from people missing the driveway and running over it for who knows how many years, so we broke it up with a fork and put in some of our compost. This year we planted it in some really nice soil the chooks prepared for us behind the new garden beds.
I’ve read quite a lot about garlic in preparation for this year’s planting, and it seems the hardcore garlic growers get quite specific about soil, water, planting date and harvest. We’ve found that garlic has been very low fuss, the strip we planted in is not only some of the driest ground in the garden, but also the wettest, with one end turning to rock and the other to mush where we get standing water even in the lightest rains. I think, as with all vegetables, it’s about the soil fertility. Good compost seems to trump other factors.
Get seed garlic from the garden centre, the stuff we grow has a reddish skin around the cloves, and is called, unimaginatively, NZ garlic. Alternatively get a head or two from a gardening friend (like us) and grow the seed for next years crop. Ours is all gone this year, but we gave away garlic to a number of friends this year, so let me know if you want some next year and we’ll try to save you some. Some people claim that supermarket garlic will grow, but you risk introducing disease from the imported stuff and it’s often chemically treated to stop it sprouting on the shelf. I wonder what that does to humans?
When to plant, there’s still time!
The traditional date to plant garlic is on the shortest day, then harvest on the longest. Again, we’ve never been too exact, last year we planted some in May and some in July, harvesting both at roughly the same time in early January. The best time to plant and to harvest is when it suits you. The best garden is one you enjoy, that you don’t feel dictates your schedule. According to ‘Growing Great Garlic’ you can plant any time from May to August, so there is still time!
The best garlic comes from the cloves on the outside of the head, the big juicy ones from your previous crop are your best bet, helping you create your own local variety suited to your garden. We actually plant all the cloves, eating the smaller heads first and saving the monsters for next year’s seed. Gently pull the outside cloves off the head, try not to damage the moist insides of the clove, plant them with their skin on, pointy end up, and about 1 or 2 cm below the surface of the soil. Keep them about 10cm apart if you have good fertile soil.
I love pea straw. Pile on a thickish layer of pea straw, the garlic will push through with no worry at all. The pea straw protects the soil from drying out, keeps the weeds down and feeds the soil as it breaks down over the 6 months the garlic is growing.
Harvesting the garlic is done about 6 months later, when you see the top leaves wither and brown. The garlic head should be lumpy from the individual cloves, leave it a little longer if this is not the case and eat the one you pulled up. Stick a trowel under the head and gently pry up the garlic, yanking it up can bruise and damage it. If you see the curly pointed flower heads (scapes) appearing at the top of your garlic, snip them off and eat them in a salad, they’re quite mild to taste and will cause your garlic heads to split if you leave them.
Leave your garlic to dry out for about a week, we store ours up high on a piece of wire mesh under shelter but in the sunlight for however long it takes us to get around to dealing with it. This year we plaited the garlic by weaving the leaves together, Clare found it really easy and before long we had long strings of garlic hanging in the shed. The plaits should be stored in a cool, darkish, dry place, a shed is perfect. They should keep until roughly the time you start to eat next years.
Recipe - Simple Sweet Pasta Sauce from Your Garden
If you have your own:
If you don’t:
Put the oil, tomatoes and garlic in a heavy pot like a Le Creuset. Break the tomatoes up with a wooden spoon and stir around. Cook uncovered for twenty to thirty minutes over a lowish heat. The tomatoes will separate from the oil and the moisture level will be quite low when it’s ready. Chuck in a handful of fresh basil and serve over any type of pasta.
Variation: instead of basil put in any combination of fresh or dried chillis, olives, capers and anchovies when you put in the garlic.
I recently read somewhere that good gardeners don’t grow plants, they grow soil. We forget that soil is a living thing, a colony of mycorrhizal fungi, worms, plant roots and microscopic life that process and produce nutrients, fight off disease and break down fallen leaves and dead roots. Organic gardeners have a big advantage, their soil is working for them, they don’t need to spend money and energy on injecting nutrients into a system that nature has perfected over millennia. There are a number of ways to improve soil, or create your own (see our raised beds series) but all of them have one thing in common, increasing organic matter to feed the soil.
We are lucky really, Clare has an apparently innate understanding of how to mix compost, allowing us to avoid a stinky sludge that is nowhere near the brown crumbly stuff that makes your vegetables grow big and juicy. Many people have published a recipe for compost that helps you get the mix right, the goal being a ratio of 20 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. Typically grass clippings are about this ratio, but if you try to use only grass clippings, you’ll end up with nasty sludge. The easiest way is to use one bucket of green (manure, kitchen waste, grass clippings) to one bucket of brown (straw, dried leaves, small sticks). We find that creating compost by adding regular layers of kitchen waste, grass clippings and straw and manure from cleaning the chicken house produces a really good mix, and fits well with our lifestyle. Not every one has this advantage of course, so a recipe may help. We use two of those bins that look like stunted daleks, we could really do with a third, but in the meantime a pile next to the bins takes heavier material like whole plants and woody stems as well as the excess grass clippings. Make sure you turn your compost regularly too, to avoid a slimy mess.
Mulching is wonderful. When we discovered mulching, gardening became something I found myself itching to do. The amount of work that is avoided by piling a layer of pea straw over our soil would easily be equal to all of the other work in the garden combined. Mulch, apart from adding a slowly decomposing organic layer, prevents water loss through evaporation, keeps weeds down and provides some frost protection to newly sprouting plants. Pea straw is ideal, and Wairarapa gardeners can get it for around $4 a bail if you know where to look. (email me for the number). Autumn leaves run over with the lawn mower also make a decent mulch, and certainly I know people in Carterton who asked the council this autumn to deliver them to their houses - for free!
A shortcut to good soil is the sheet mulching technique. I haven’t tried it, although it’s a little like what we’ve done in the raised beds. The technique comes from Mollison’s Permaculture works and is known to be particularly successful. I wish we’d known about it before we took a rotary hoe to our lawn a few years ago. A lot of people like this method because it’s incredibly easy and can get rid of couch grass and other unwanted weeds. An online guide is available.
Sheet Mulching excerpt from In Grave Danger of Falling Food with Bill Mollison
Apart from downside of a death like stench, a really fast way to add nutrients to your soil is to create liquid fertiliser. Soak comfrey, grass clippings, animal manure, seaweed or a mixture of all in a 20l bucket of water. Leave it for a couple of weeks and then pour on your soil, it can be quite strong so water it down to prevent burning your plants with too much nitrogen.
Let the plants do the work
Potatoes are known as a great first crop, as they break up compacted soil as their fat tubers grow. Legumes like beans and peas are nitrogen fixing, leaving their roots in the ground feeds the soil. Fallen leaves work as a mulch, if they are in the wrong spot, move them to where you need them.
One of the things I don’t like about industrial agriculture, is the ignorance if the micronutrients. Yes, plants will grow if you give them the macronutrients, but if you want high levels of the good stuff like caretenoids, flavonoids and trace elements in your vegetables, you need non-synthetic (organic) fertiliser like I’ve mentioned above.
Soil pH can get out of balance with too much organic waste, so a sprinkling of lime can keep it in balance. We probably don’t pay enough attention to this ourselves, but if you are doing all these things I mention here, and you still have problems with unhappy plants, add some lime. You can get a soil testing kit which will let you be more scientific if you want to.
I’ve read great things about Rock Dust as well. This is meant to emulate the rock flour that is produced by glacial flows over rock. The fine dust provides minerals that are otherwise not renewed in soil. I haven’t tried this either, but intend to give it a go this year, I’ll let you know how it goes.
The act of good gardening also helps to create great soil, here are a few tips on keeping the soil alive.
On the weekend we created a new chicken run, using steel waratahs (Y stakes) and some wire netting. It only takes an hour or so to setup this way and can be reconfigured at any time to give the girls a new bit of ground.
This time we decided to include two of the raised beds in the chicken run, an easy way to add their very high in nitrogen fertiliser as another green layer before we finish filling them. It also has the added benefit of giving the chickens some more vertical space to play in. It might sound funny, but the chickens look really happy jumping up and down over the edges of the beds and sitting on the pile of gravel excavated from below the beds, particularly our star-layer Pearl the Light Sussex. By the way, did I mention we now have three eggs a day? Happy chickens don’t stop laying in winter it seems.
A full raised bed article will update our progress soon.