People who love using garlic in recipes but are shocked at its cost in winter need to know that growing their own cloves is do able, even in small spaces. Where flower gardens are the only option, a few plants of garlic fit right in because they deter aphids from infesting neighbouring plants.
Garlic is also hardy, slug-resistant and needs almost no watering because it grows during our nine-month wet season. But it needs sun and well-drained rich soil. Raised beds amended with compost or composted manure are a perfect garlic-growing environment. October is the ideal month to plant this crop and bulb clusters will soon be available in local garden centres. Another useful source is farmers markets where varieties are grown close to home. If you buy garlic from food stores to use as sets you should be cautious. Some garlic bulb clusters may be treated with sprout inhibitors. Also, stores may sell varieties from warm climates that are less hardy than local garlic.
There are three main kinds. The largest cloves come from hard-neck types such as Persian Star, Music or Red Russian. These throw up a stiff, bulbil-producing stalk.
Soft-neck types such as Greek White or Chinese have smaller, long-keeping cloves and braidable stalks. Then there's serpent garlic, which has long stems that curl in circles at the top. Sometimes this is called rocambole.
First-time gardeners should break the bulb into clusters and plant individual cloves with the pointed end up two or three inches deep. Mulching with leaves or grass clippings keeps the soil moist and deters weeds. Because garlic needs to grow from October to about August, it doesn't fit well into succession plantings. The garlic bed should also be rotated. This means the old garlic area should have no garlic, shallot or onion crops in it for three years.
This is hard to do in small spaces. An alternative is digging out the top layer of old soil and replacing it with compost. About June, garlic develops scapes. These look like flower buds with long points and they should be removed immediately while still young. They are delicious sliced-up in stir-fries. If you leave them alone, your cloves will be smaller. The long stems can be left to continue photosynthesis. In July when weather becomes dry, the garlic bed can be left unwatered so that the plants die naturally. Leaves and stems go yellow, then brown and after a few weeks keel over. At this point, it's time to dig up the cloves. Depending on the weather, these may be cured for a week in sun with a cover at night, or just dried inside if weather is showery. Soft-neck kinds can then be braided. Add string if the leaves are weak.
Hard-neck kinds are impossible to braid. The stems with cloves attached should be tied together and hung in a dry, cool spot to be eaten as needed.