Be sure to follow a few guidelines when growing garlic or you may be disappointed, writes Justin Newcombe.
Garlic, like tomatoes, is something many gardeners plant annually as part of the garden ritual. Collecting and saving the seed for the next year is pretty much the hardest part, but that doesn't mean garlic is immune from disaster - as I found out last year. The seed can be a bit expensive and with that there's the motivation to make it work.
Ideally you want to have enough garlic to last you until the following year's crop is ready. This is not something I've been able to achieve as yet but that's more due to the amount of available growing space I'm able to dedicate to the crop through the winter and spring. Garlic takes a good six months to come to fruition. Garlic in New Zealand is planted close to the shortest day and its growing habits are tied to the orientation of the sun. It requires low-nitrogen soil but that doesn't mean it's not a gross feeder, as I found out last year. I made the mistake of not preparing the soil with enough organic material and blood and bone, and the results were poor. Not a complete disaster though, as we still had enough big bulbs to save as seed for this year but it wasn't the bumper crop I had had my heart set on.
As a result, this year we've gone in all guns blazing. Firstly we trenched seaweed into the ground six weeks ago. Seaweed is excellent for stimulating soil biology and also provides a good range of micro nutrients. Seaweed also makes a great prophylactic spray if you soak it in a barrel for six to eight weeks. Dressing the beds with blood and bone and mulching with leaf mould is also good practice. Your garlic is actually quite a hungry beast and will definitely fatten up if you feed it enough. Be careful though to avoid saturating the soil with too much nitrogen as this will stimulate the tops: they may be yummy in their own right but they are not the ultimate prize. Make sure the soil is friable and of good tilth, that is nice and crumbly like used coffee grounds. Definitely do not walk on the bed. This is important because the garden bed needs to be undisturbed for six months and can compact easily.
As well as feeding, make sure the beds are kept weed-free, as weeds will hinder big bulbs. When the weather starts to warm, the foliage will begin to deteriorate. Don't worry, this is a natural state of affairs. I've sometimes let the green top die right back to the point where the bulb falls apart when I'm pulling it. This year I'll pull the garlic relatively early but will be sure to dry it out well. Drying the bulb in a dry dark place slightly shrinks the bulb, which helps preserve the fruit of your labour. Of course to make the whole operation economic you'll want to save seed for your next crop. What makes this part so hard is you need to choose your biggest, most perfect cloves, the rest you can eat. Finally, plait the harvested bulbs and hang them in the kitchen or out of the sun to admire all year around.