Now that it’s bulb-planting season, you may have noticed — near the lavish display of tulip, crocus and narcissus bulbs — a humbler kind of bulb for sale at the garden centre. It may produce flowers, but this often-overlooked bulb is grown to eat rather than to simply admire in the garden. It is used medicinally for its varied health benefits, even combatting the common cold, and can be concocted into a natural systemic pesticide for garden plants.
Essential as a flavouring ingredient in countless international recipes, it is a kitchen staple, but beware: ingesting too much of it during a dinner date is sure to spoil any romantic yearnings. The bulb I am referring to, of course, is garlic.
So why bother going through the trouble of growing it yourself when garlic is conveniently available, and inexpensively so, in any grocery store? One reason is taste. Gardeners who love cooking like I do appreciate homegrown garlic’s pungent, superior flavour, which is no match to imported, ho-hum grocery store garlic. Besides, growing garlic is really no trouble at all. It is one of the easiest foods to grow yourself, providing you follow a few basic guidelines.
How to grow
Good soil and plenty of sunshine will help ensure a good garlic crop. Like other bulbs, garlic prefers a free-draining, fertile soil or they risk rotting; raised beds enriched with compost are ideal. Those without a yard may try planting garlic in deep buckets with drainage holes in a spot where soil won’t freeze, but it’s easier to grow garlic in the ground. Garlic requires a cold period to grow, just like tulips and daffodils, but individual garlic cloves, instead entire bulbs, are planted, then bulbs of garlic are harvested the following summer.
Separate cloves and plant with papery husks intact, pointy side up in trenches about 3-6 inches (7-15cm) deep and about a hand width apart. After ground freezes, mulch beds with shredded leaves or straw. As garlic matures underground it sends up a long shoot aboveground that signals when it’s ready for harvest, typically by the end of August.
When about half of their onion-like leaves have dried and their stem flops, garlic bulbs should be carefully lifted from the soil, brushed clean of their dirt and air dried for two weeks to ensure the longest possible storage. After trimming their stem and roots, keep in a dark, dry place until ready to use.
The best garlic sources for planting come from seed garlic sold locally in garden centres. This type of garlic is bred for the purpose of growing in our freezing climate and will less likely harbour diseases or viruses. Hardneck varieties like ‘music’ are reliably hardy and produce ‘scapes’ at their growing tips in mid June, which can be cut off, cooked and enjoyed in pestos and stirfries.
Locally grown Quebec garlic is available in supermarkets and farmers’ markets at the end of summer and into fall and can be used for planting, but bulbs are sometimes pricier than the seed garlic varieties sold in nurseries. Grocery store garlic imported from other countries (the soft neck variety) are irradiated to prolong shelf life, so are not recommended for planting here.
Sunny, cool weather without bothersome bugs makes gardening especially enjoyable. When bulb planting this fall, find some room to plant garlic. The added bonus is that these bulbs won’t be lost to outwitting squirrels and you’ll have a food crop to look forward to after spring flowers have long faded.
Elaine Sanders can be reached at www.solutionsjardins.com