Take a deep breath! Garlic without Tears

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By Sally Ford.
From Growing Green International 10.

New to gardening? Not sure where to begin? Here’s the first in an occasional series focusing on individual vegetables, telling you all you need to know about their small-scale cultivation and a few things you don’t need to know, but might find interesting.

Flowers are all very well (and a few are edible) but, you can’t make a meal out of them. So, if space and/or time are limited, go for vegetables and you’ll never regret it. Make yours a vegan organic garden and there will be plenty of room in between the veg for flowers as companion plants, insect attractants and to add colour.

Let’s face it: growing vegetables is hard work. Growing vegan organically is labour intensive. Hoeing or hand-weeding is bound to take a lot longer than a quick spray with a herbicide. Making compost, that most mystical of activities, is much slower than chucking on a few handfuls of chemical fertiliser. But the very fact that you spend time on these things makes them all the more worthwhile and rewarding. Gardening this way, you’ll really feel a sense of achievement.


“Not so much a herb, more a way of life”
Lawrence D. Hills

Unless you’re one of those people who doesn’t like the taste of garlic (I think I did meet someone once who suffered from this strange affliction), this is the ideal crop for a novice gardener

Garlic at a glance:

A bulb = a cluster of cloves (bulblets);

Plant in November, approx. 6 inches apart; with top an inch below surface;

Keep moist in spring;

Harvest July;

Store in cool, dry place;

Eat with relish!


Selecting your garlic:

Garlic goes by the botanical name of allium sativum and is a member of the onion family. If you’re operating a rotation system in your garden – and anyone who’s serious about growing vegetables should be – it should be included in the root vegetables bed.

Garlic cloves can be white, pink or mauve-skinned. The pink varieties are supposed to be hardier and to keep longer. There are now several different varieties commercially available which means you can make the garlic eating season last longer – all year long in my case.

For your first garlic crop, you can simply buy bulbs at your greengrocer and choose cloves from the best tasting ones. Most garlic available in UK shops comes from France or Italy. However, if you want your bulbs to be virus resistant and organically produced, you’re better off getting them mail order. Try Jennifer Birch in Stroud who sells only garlic and has several different varieties available. (Garfield Villa, Belle Vue Road, Stroud, Glos. Tel/Fax: 01453 750 371).


Choose the fattest, best looking cloves to use as seed garlic. Don’t be tempted to eat them and leave the puny ones to plant. Don’t plant anything that’s rotting or even looking as if it’s thinking about rotting. Yes, well, we learn by our mistakes, don’t we?

Plant in November with the top of the clove about an inch below the soil surface. This works well for me unless our neighbourhood oont comes along and buries the clove under several inches of soil. (Moles are known as oonts in this part of the world – no prizes for guessing what an oontitump is).

Spacing depends on how big you want the garlic to grow. The bigger the space between bulbs, the bigger the plant and the cloves. 6 inches either way is a good distance.

Plant in a sunny position, preferably in light, welldrained soil. But don’t worry if you don’t have optimum conditions. In a good summer, garlic will grow practically anywhere, so it’s still worth a try.

The main thing to remember is to ignore all advice to leave planting until the spring. THE BEST GARLIC IS PLANTED IN NOVEMBER. Or, at the very latest, December. This is because, in order for garlic to yield well, it needs a minimum of a month in the ground at below 10º C, so if you leave planting until March and it’s a mild spring, you miss out. You’ll have puny plants, more liable to disease and with poorer flavour. Besides it gives you something to look at during the winter months.

If however you have heavy wet land then it may be your best bet to plant in April.

For the first few weeks, all you’ll see is a bare patch of soil and you’ll be wondering whether something has eaten the cloves or they’ve rotted or you imagined planting them. Then, just when you’re about to give up, the first tiny green shoot appears. If you’ve included the variety Sprint in your planting, this agonising wait will be considerably shorter.

Caring for your garlic bulbs is very straightforward. They will tolerate a few weeds around them – just ensure that they don’t get out of hand and start to choke the plants. A wet spring is ideal, so if it’s very dry, the occasional watering will be gratefully received.

Don’t panic if the stems turn yellow in the early spring. This is probably wind burn and doesn’t mean that the plant has died or is even unhealthy. You’d turn blue if you had to withstand icy cold winds for hours on end, so it’s only the colour that’s different.

Garlic needs as much direct sunlight as possible during the bulbing period (6 weeks before harvest). That’s what the books tell you. They don’t tell you how to achieve this. Short of transporting the whole bed to the Mediterranean or Florida, it’s hard to see how you’re going to be able to control the amount of sunlight your crop receives, but perhaps you can think of something.

Pests & Diseases:

Garlic-eating slugs have not yet been reported, although it’s probably only a matter of time.

Birds sometimes peck at the green shoots when they first appear, so some wire netting or net curtains draped over the crop will protect it well.

The books say that garlic is susceptible to viral diseases, fungi and nematodes, but if you keep the crop rotating every year, you’re not likely to suffer many losses.

Harvesting & Storing:

Harvest sooner rather than later (June for early varieties like Sprint, July for most varieties), but wait for a spell of dry weather, so that the bulbs are already pretty dry when you dig them up. You’ll know when they’re ready because the stems start to flop over and look a bit past it.

Dig them up carefully. Don’t get overexcited and jab your fork into the bulb. Yes, we’ve all done it in our enthusiasm. Use a garden fork to loosen the soil all around the bulb, then pull gently to release the roots. Shake off all the soil.Garlic bulbs must be properly dried if they’re to keep well. Make sure the roots are bone dry and that the neck is dry and the stems have wilted well.

Drying in the sun is traditional, (in my experience, if something’s traditional, that’s usually a good enough reason not to do it!) but in Britain this method can be fraught with difficulties. You’ve got to remember to bring it indoors every evening, otherwise it may get damp overnight, there’s always the risk of a rain shower and low flying birds seem to delight in crapping on it. A greenhouse is ideal if you’ve got the space to spread it out there. Otherwise, a sunny window sill could be the place.

When dry, store in a dry, airy place. If you’ve grown both an early maturing variety and a standard one, make sure you label the varieties clearly so that you can remember to use the short dormancy ones first. You may think you’ll remember, but …

Warning: Garlic is addictive. You’ll probably find you grow more and more each year, because you enjoy eating it so much! Gradually you’ll start adding an extra clove or two to all your dishes in order to satisfy your craving.

Apparently mariners (the ancient variety) would “as lief go to sea without garlic as without a compass”. I know what they mean – I’ve been known to take a couple of bulbs on holiday with me.

Rich in sulphur, with countless claims for its medicinal value, ranging from purifying the blood to toning up the digestive system (and everything else in between), garlic is an essential ingredient in loads of vegetarian and vegan dishes, particularly soups, casseroles and stir fries.

A mild garlic flavour can be added to salads or as a raw ingredient in other dishes or garnishes by using ransoms, garlic mustard (also known as Jack-by-the-hedge), rocambole or garlic chives. All of these garlic ‘substitutes’ can be grown in your garden and are much nicer to look at than garlic. They are delicious in their own way, but not a patch on the real thing.

A friend tells me there is an annual Festival of Garlic on the Isle of Wight, to celebrate this queen of herbs. Apparently, they put garlic in absolutely everything, including ice cream. Making your own vegan ice cream is pretty easy, so if you’ll just excuse me…..6 hours later well, maybe not. Still, it was worth a try!

Questions and Answers

There is not much choice of green manures in local shops and what there is can be expensive, any ideas?

Suffolk herbs and the organic gardening catalogue sell larger packs of a wide selection. A very cheap nitrogen fixing green manure is peas. Buy a big packet of ordinary dried marrowfat peas as cheap as you can find them, then, after preparing your ground (a fine tilth is not necessary) rake out rows about 2 inches deep and only 6 to 8 inches apart. Sprinkle your peas in the rows and cover over. Peas for green manure can be planted from about April to early September in most places. The crop will come up thickly and will hold itself up as the tendrils hang on to each other.

The usual thing to do is cut down the plants just before flowering and either compost or dig in the foliage; if digging it in, chop it up and leave on the ground for a few days when it will be easier to incorporate. Pea foliage will probably not last over winter. The roots will have added nitrogen to the soil.

What green manures do you suggest for heavy soils?

Over the years we have experimented with various green manures on a wet clayey allotment site in North Cheshire. We find that mustard certainly grows rapidly but usually goes to seed quickly, without producing much foliage. Later sowings will produce more leaves.

Clovers and alfalfa do not seem to germinate or grow on very well. Phacelia grows reasonably well, but is not a nitrogen fixer. Peas as mentioned above have grown very well. Broad beans are useful and are mentioned in detail elsewhere in this issue. A crop that does do very well is winter tares, early sowings can be cut several times and will grow back. Later sowings can be overwintered; its a nitrogen fixer and is not expensive.

How can I feed my strawberries vegan-organically? The organic books say plant in lightly manured soil with bone meal.

When planting out, make a hole about 6 inches deep and the same across and fill with a mixture of fine soil and good compost. Use home made compost or a good animal-free organic one such as B&Q. Include some chopped wilted comfrey leaves if you can. Plant your young strawberries in this and give a light sprinkling of seaweed meal or incorporate some in the planting mixture.

Strawberries don’t need a lot of nitrogen, too much gives lush foliage but poor fruit. In spring give a liquid comfrey or seaweed feed plus a light mulch of compost, spent hops or pelleted hops. Strawberries benefit from a potash rich feed after fruiting so apply a liquid comfrey feed then, this is expensive to buy but easy to make if you have some comfrey plants.

I would like some early salad crops but have heavy wet soil so few things will come early.

Try planting Japanese onion sets in September, in spring you can pull them when they are like large spring onions (which are expensive in the shops then)

Swiss chard and spinach beet planted in summer will provide plenty of leaves and usually overwinter well enough to supply spring leaves that can be used as saladings. It helps if the plants are kept well watered and any seed stems that come up are cut off.

My maincrop potatoes have really suffered from blight this year

The weather in the UK and Europe has greatly increased blight this season. Its important to cut off and destroy all the foliage from maincrop spuds when it dies off, or if blight is heavy, when it starts to go brown, otherwise the blight spores will drop down and pass into the tubers making them rot in the ground or in storage. When blight has been bad remove some soil from around a few plants at the end of July or therabouts and see if any are going rotten; if they are, harvest the crop early, the tubers may not be large or store well for more than a few months but at least you will have saved some. Check stored spuds regularly and dispose of any soft or rotten ones..

Commercial non-organic growers go to enormous lengths to circumvent blight; large-scale growers have blight stations on site, monitoring the weather and many other factors. Laboratories tell the growers when to apply fungicides (which is pretty often). Commercial spuds are dosed with weed killer to remove the foliage and are also sprayed with chemicals in storage to prevent them sprouting. So although growing your own has its problems, you avoid an awful lot of added nasties!

Any more ideas for dealing with tiny fruit flies on indoor plants?

Yes, if you don’t mind keeping plants that eat them! Jan Green writes:

‘I have found a solution to keeping their numbers down. It is a carnivorous plant called Drosera carpensis (Sundew family) and catches lots of flies. It is an easy plant to look after, just stand it in a dish of rainwater on a sunny windowsill. If kept in warm conditions over winter it will continue to grow, otherwise it dies back and sends up new leaves in spring. Drosera aliciae does not seem to catch any flies at all.’

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