Justin Newcombe discovers that nature's most pungent vegetable is actually a cinch to grow.
Having always admired my aunt's fancy braids of plump garlic casually hanging from her pantry door, I had talked myself into thinking that garlic was something only grown by "black belt" gardeners.
In fact (once I dug a little deeper) I found that growing garlic wasn't so mysterious after all. Actually, if you're a bit slack, it's all rather good news.
As well as looking superb strung up in your kitchen or pantry, garlic is about as easy as it gets to grow. Although you traditionally plant garlic on the shortest day of the year when it's wet, it's the perfect crop for those of us guilty of a bit of garden neglect during the height of summer. Here's why.
Garlic has two basic growing phases. Firstly a green phase, when we plant our clove into good free-draining soil, water loads (if it's not raining) and admire the verdant spring onion like shoots.
Secondly, a brown phase consisting of our fresh verdant shoots browning off into an eventual dried-up frazzle, lying prostrate on the ground while the garlic pumps all of its energy into forming a plump, crisp bulb.
This change between the two phases is brought on by a combination of sun hours, planting times and soil temperature. It's all very scientific and something you don't need to be worried about, that's nature's job. Your job is to stand there with the hose and look beautiful.
Preparing your soil
Garlic likes free-draining soil. Composted manure for those vital nutrients incorporated into your soil a month or so before planting is useful. If you haven't done that, just top dress with compost and try to remember next year. I use seaweed followed by a dressing of compost.
Garlic is planted using cloves and basically bigger is better. Save the biggest cloves each year for next year's planting and watch your crops get bigger and bigger, year after year.
Any time around the shortest day of the year is good. Ideally though you want to plant your garlic in late autumn. The longer you leave it after this though the less time your garlic has to grow big.
Planting depth and spacing
Plant each clove about 10 to 15 cm apart and at a depth of around 5cm. This will give your bulbs plenty of space to develop.
Use a board with notches or marks on it giving you the exact spacing required (this is also called a "drill"). The board will also stop you from walking on the beds when you plant, and help keep your lines of garlic straight.
Finishing the bed
When you've finished planting, dress the bed with compost (that is, lightly sprinkle some across the top), then lightly cover with dried leaves or straw.
Caring for your garlic
If you have prepared the soil well then most of the work is done. Keep well watered for most of the time. As the tops brown off you will need to reduce your watering significantly and for the last month or so while the garlic is in the ground don't water at all. That's right, a crop that actually requires your neglect.
I actually left my garlic crop in the ground a little too long last season. The garlic cloves themselves were still in perfect nick but the bulbs fell apart very easily and the tops were often too brittle to braid.
Once the stem has browned off completely on three quarters of the plant then you will be getting close to harvest. The only way to find out is to dig up a couple of bulbs and cut them open.
Basically it's a judgment call and, remember, dig your bulbs, don't pull them, and save the biggest cloves for seed next season.
Curing and storing
Make sure you remove all the remaining soil from the bulbs and place in a cool dry place for around a month. (I put mine on the shed floor on some cardboard boxes.)
The garlic can be stored by hanging them in an onion bag or by braiding the stalks together or keep them in a box ready for use.