Last night I sat up late, splitting 150 bulbs of garlic into individual cloves. This morning, I began planting the things. Six hours later I was done. The dog was no help at all. It got a bit tedious about four hours in but I just had to keep reminding myself how much I love garlic and how much nicer next year’s fresh ‘wet’ garlic will be than anything available in the shops, both of which are true.
Autumn is the ideal time to plant, as garlic needs a long growing season with a prolonged cool period to do well. There are some varieties suitable for planting in spring but my personal experience is that an over-wintered crop produces bigger bulbs. There are also a lot of other jobs vying for attention in spring.
I recommend buying bulbs from a seed company, at least in the first instance, since supermarket garlic may carry disease and the variety may not be suited to our climate. ‘Seed’ garlic certified as disease-free is more expensive but next year you can save your own bulbs for planting if you like, provided that they look healthy. In any case, the return on your investment is good – one clove will, over nine months, divide and swell to form an entire bulb.
Garlic needs a sunny site and well-drained soil that has not been recently manured. On light soils, plant individual cloves upright about 10cm down and 18-20cm apart. Plant more shallowly on heavy soils. You can improve drainage by putting a little sand underneath each one or by raking up a flat-topped bed in your plot and planting into that, as I have done here. On really wet sites it’s actually better to start each clove off in a separate pot, over-winter them in a cold frame or sheltered spot outdoors and then plant them out in spring.
I’ve always had success with the cultivars that originate from ‘The Garlic Farm’ on the Isle of Wight: ‘Early Purple Wight’ produces large bulbs for autumn use. ‘Iberian’, ‘Provence’ and ‘Albigensian’ all seem consistently hefty and ‘Solent Wight’, though smaller, keeps until April or even May.
When you break open a bulb for planting there are always a few weedy little cloves left over that will never grow into big bulbs. I always plant these close together in a block and then harvest them from spring onwards as I would salad onions. This, plus foraging for ransoms – wild garlic – bridges the gap between stored supply and the new season’s crop, which will be mature around the beginning of July.