Grow Your Own Garlic
Fresh garlic is absolutely delicious; beats the dried out, goodness-knows-how-old-it-is, store-bought stuff hands down. The true test of garlic is roasting a head and eating it just smeared on baguette. A little butter and Brie cheese doesn’t hurt, either. Fresh garlic will have a fullness of flavour, a bite that is just missing from common store-bought garlic.
There are something like 600 plus varieties of garlic! Who knew? All garlic is divided into two major groups: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck garlic produces (depending on watering) usually five to seven bigger cloves. It produces scapes or flowering stems and will have a hard center stem. Softneck garlic can produce many smaller cloves, up to sixteen I’ve read. It does not produce the same flowering stem and has no center core. There is also something called Elephant garlic, which is not a true garlic but more closely related to onions and leeks. It is known for an extremely mild flavor and huge heads and cloves. As a garlic lover, I find it a little bland but it is useful in the kitchen when using raw garlic in salad dressings, especially when guests are coming who are ‘afraid’ of garlic. Hardneck garlics are much hardier for our Manitoba climate, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on. Softnecks can be grown, with plenty of mulch, left on well into Spring, but it’s a bit of a gamble. Elephant garlic is fairly hardy but requires large amounts of water to achieve the size. Better to plant the hardy stuff and ensure a crop, don’t you think?
Garlic bulbs are currently available at Alternative Choice Garden Centre. Do not plant garlic from the grocery store: it is often sprayed with a growth retardant to keep it from sprouting in the warm conditions of shipping and store presentation. Furthermore, it will often be a softneck, but you won’t know until you open it and see how many cloves are in the head. Choose firm heads and separate the cloves but no need to remove the papery cover. Plant about six inches apart and three inches deep. The best time to plant is often, for Manitoba gardeners, some time in October, usually after Thanksgiving. We want the temperatures cooler so that the cloves stay dormant and do not try to sprout and grow. With the fabulous weather we’ve had, we’ll probably be able to plant into early November this year.
Garlic loves a healthy, rich soil so don’t be afraid to dig in compost (such as Sea Soil) or well aged manures. Prepare your bed or rows by lightly digging in your amendments. Bone meal is also a great idea so that the nutrition is available to the roots. You can hoe a row and drop your cloves in or plant each clove individually using a hand spade or garden knife. Pointy end goes up. Firm the soil, water in and then I highly recommend a good mulch of three to five inches of straw, leaves or even more compost. The mulch will help maintain the soil at an even temperature, whether we get a hot spell at the end of October (it’s possible!), a warm spell in February or a cold spell in May. Do not be in too much of a hurry to remove the mulch in Spring, because of the aforementioned cold/hot spells. The garlic will sprout and grow right through the mulch. During the spring and summer, allow the soil to dry out between waterings, but water will increase the size of your cloves. If you are on slow draining, heavy clay it is possible to over-water and your bulbs could rot so light waterings a little more often.
Have you ever eaten a garlic scape or flowering stem? For a garlic lover, it is what gets you through until the garlic is ready in mid to late summer. The flowering stem of hardneck garlic is delicious, with a mild garlic flavor. I use it raw in salads and dressings, cooked in stir fries, baked into fritters – many uses! Best to take the scape when it’s young as it is much more tender, and you prevent the plant from putting energy into the flower instead of your lovely cloves.
Garlic is ready usually sometime in August. A basic rule of thumb is that when at least half the leaves have died back the garlic is ready. If you’re looking for timely information, join the Facebook group ‘Manitoba Garlic Growers’ and compare notes with growers across the province. I’ve always dug the garlic and then tried to sun dry it, turning it every couple of days for ten to fourteen days. You can also hang them in bunches from something like the rafters in the garage, somewhere with good air circulation. Then I’d trim tops and roots, and we’re ready for good eating all winter. No need to refrigerate, just find a cool, dark place and ‘shake up’ the heads every couple of weeks so the rot doesn’t set in where the bulbs touch.
Currently Alternative Choice Garden Centre has three hardneck varieties available (and it is 25% off right now!). ‘Music’ is a popular choice with growers here in Manitoba: It is proven reliable, delicious with a full, medium spicy flavor. It’s a good storage garlic, with a pink tinge to the cloves. ‘Metchi’ is a purple stripe hardneck with a hot spice! It is also a good storage choice. ‘German Red’ is a Rocombole type, often a slightly smaller head with a milder spice but still full flavor. I’ve read a couple of cooking sites that highly recommend it for dehydrating and making your own garlic powder.
Although I’m not in a position to grow my own garlic at this time, I scored some beautiful ‘Music’ from friends in Boissevain early September. Hubby and I roasted it over a campfire, wrapped in tinfoil and drizzled with olive oil. We warmed up Brie cheese, also in tinfoil. Toasted a fresh baguette…and heaven!!! We roasted too many heads, but the cooked cloves pop out of the papery covering quite easily and have been delicious in pasta sauces and stir fries. It’s easy; you can do it, too!