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Garlic - Allium sativum

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Garlic 01-230x153Garlic has been cultivated for at least 6,000 years. It has been a wild plant species for perhaps one hundred thousand years. Garlic was found preserved in the Pyramids of Egypt. It has been noted in both Greek and Roman accounts, legends and ruins.

And being a native herb of Asia, it has been used there in both culinary and medicinal uses since earliest antiquity. Garlic is a member of the Onion Family. So it is related to Chives, Leeks, Onions, Rikkya (Chinese Onions) and Shallot just to name a few. While most commonly used edible and medicinal species are natives of Asia, especially China, there are also other related Garlic species from Europe, the Mediterranean and also North America.

Today Garlic is an important commercial crop, with many millions of bulbs being raised each year around the world. China, India and South Korea are the biggest Commercial Growers and consumers of Garlic. But it is also frequently raised in Egypt, Russia and Ukraine, the U.S.A. Myanmar and Argentina.

Three kinds are commonly grown today: White Garlic, Red Garlic and Elephant Garlic with a milder favour. All are equally easy to grow and their habit of growth is much the same, although Elephant Garlic grows proportionately much larger than the other two cultivars.

Almost all parts of the plant are edible including its bulb/cloves, flowers, leaves, and tender stem shoots. Much like Bunching or Green Onions, the vegetative parts are best harvested when young and tender. As they mature these parts become rather astringent, course and very hot to the taste.

Over and above its culinary and medicinal qualities, possibly one of the reasons that Garlic has such a long history of cultivation is because it is so easily grown. It is still almost a ‘wild’ vegetable plant. This is provided that it has exactly the ‘right’ location.

Garlic is best sown from seed or Garlic Cloves. These are planted in the Autumn, Winter or Early Spring. In mild climates Garlic can be grown all year. Autumn and Winter clove plantings are preferred with Late Spring and Summer harvests at maturity. Seed is often sown in Spring to Early Summer and crops are harvested the following Late Spring and Summer.

In cool or moderately cold climates, the cloves are often planted in Autumn so that they can become established before the arrival of freezing weather. The bulbs remain dormant throughout the Winter and re-emerge in Spring growing on and maturing in Early Summer.

Garlic demands full sunshine for top quality harvests. It will grow in partial sun, especially when it is harvested for leaves or vegetable Garlic shoots but bulbs never grow very large in partial shade and are more likely to rot or become predated by blight or insects. It can also be successfully grown in preferably large containers.

The Garlic beds must be very well drained! This is essential for success with Garlic. Just like their other Onion Family relatives, they produce the very best results in organically fertile and enriched land. Poor soils, even gravely or sandy ground will also grow Garlic, especially for vegetative shots but the bulbs will probably remain rather small at maturity.

The very best soils are fluffy and light. They have been enriched with well-aged manure or mature compost. Commercial Growers often generously dust the ground with a balanced General Garden fertilizer or one higher in Phosphate and Potash such as 5-10-15 i.e. 5% Nitrogen; 10% Phosphorous; 15% Potassium or any other similar ratio. Broadcast at the rate of 4 handfuls per square meter/yard.

Lighten heavy soil with the addition of round river gravel, sand, pumice or granulated bark. Organic Growers often liberally spread Blood and Bone, Charcoal, Soot and/or untreated Wood Ashes as well as the compost and/or manure. These are well dug in before planting. Gypsum Lime can also be liberally dusted over heavy soil to further lighten it and enhance much better drainage.

The easiest way to start new Garlic plants is by planting Garlic Cloves. These are the small individual bulbs contained in the cluster that creates the larger Garlic bulb. Simply break off the largest cloves and replant these.

While any size Garlic clove will produce a Garlic plant, it is usually the largest cloves that produce the largest entire bulbs at maturity. When planting Garlic for vegetative leaves and shoots it is permissible to plant cloves of any size.

Caution! It is not advisable to plant the entire large Garlic bulb as one unit. This will result in a large clump of very over-crowded leafy small stems. This over-crowding will quickly stress the individual plants. Usually many will die, rot or become predated by disease resulting in a very inferior harvest.

When planting Garlic Cloves, plant each clove so that the flat basal plate faces down into the soil and the pointed end of the bulb faces upward toward the soil surface. Plant 10cm/4inches apart each way and 2.5cm/1inch deep. Exhibition Garlic plants can be given significantly more room between plants so that they will grow to their maximum size.

Professional Growers often generously enrich and then cultivate the soil several weeks prior to planting.  They leave often 1m/1yard between rows. These always face North-South to capture maximum sunlight on both sides of the planting row.

Garlic fields are always planted right out in the open, often on ground that slopes into the sunshine in a very airy spot. Each planting row is raised on a mound and the Garlic cloves are planted along the center of each raised row bed.

Once the Garlic begins to grow, soil from between the rows is kept lightly cultivated and ‘hilled-up’ or piled and pushed up against the growing Garlic shoot. This is especially important in warmer climates to keep the soil cooler and more evenly moist.

Every few weeks, the rows are side dressed with additional commercial fertilizer or an organic blend of mature Compost and/or well-aged Manure. During early stages of vegetative growth and development use a balanced commercial General Garden Fertilizer such as 20-20-20 or one somewhat higher in Nitrogen. This will result in healthy and strong growth that will favour leaf production. The more healthy, strong leaves that can be produced, the larger each Garlic bulb will ultimately become.

Throughout their growing cycle, make sure that the Garlic bed(s) or row(s) remain well cultivated; eliminating all weeds that might otherwise overtake the growing Garlic or rob them of their food. But as with Onions, be sure that this cultivation is very light, as Garlic roots are spreading and remain quite close to the surface. Often applying feeding mulch over the soil is more satisfactory than cultivation. This way emerging weeds are summarily buried and the Garlic is fed at the same time.

Make sure to mark the position of newly planted Garlic at the time of planting, especially when planting Garlic cloves within an established garden bed or around other plantings. This is because emergent young Garlic shoots look very similar to leafy grasses. It is only their characteristic smell that gives them away. Thus for the novice, it is very easy to ‘weed-out’ emerging Garlic by mistake while cultivating and weeding around the garden beds.

This most commonly happens when Garlic cloves are planted around the base of Roses or other Annual or Perennial plantings that might otherwise be predated upon by Ants and Aphids. Garlic is a natural repellent to both Ants and Aphids, especially when planted close to an Ant tunnel or at the base of a plant the Ants must cross when herding Aphids or ‘Ant Cows’ into succulent foliage.

Generous plantings of Garlic cloves near these vulnerable plantings will almost insure no problems with predation throughout the growing season. Garlic flowers are very attractive and ornamental as well as edible. Some Gardeners grow them specifically for these medium to large globe heads of many star-like pink, purple and sometimes cream, yellow or white flowers. These appear in Late Spring through Early Summer as the Garlic bulb begins to reach maturity.

In Elephant Garlic and some of the related Allium ‘Onion’ species these flowers can reach the size of a globe Grapefruit on robust stems to 5ft. /150cm! Garlic flowers make an excellent inclusion within the Annual, Bulb, Perennial or mixed floral border. Their pretty globe flowers often appear around the same time as German Bearded Iris, Peony and Early Summer Perennials.

Commercial Growers and those wishing the largest Garlic bulbs, remove the flower buds before they can open. This forces more energy into producing a larger Garlic bulb rather than Garlic seed. But whenever the idea is to produce a stronger hybrid Garlic cultivar, cross-pollinated seeding is the way this is accomplished. But usually, the most reliable Garlic plants are produced from healthy large cloves.

Once the Garlic leaves begin to yellow and the stem falls over, the plants are ready to harvest. Simply dig or pull them up. Then remove any excess soil and allow them to dry in the field for several days; turning them occasionally so that they dry evenly. If weather could become rainy or heavy evening dew is likely, or in hot climates with scalding sunshine, it is best to gather the Garlic, leaves, roots and stems intact; and dry them in an airy, covered and completely dry location for several days or longer.

Once the leaves and roots have thoroughly dried, they can be removed. The Garlic is then stored in open boxes or mesh bags kept warm at about 14-18C/57-64.4F degrees until ready to use. Alternatively, just as the leaves and stems become dry and pliable, they can be gathered together and woven like Onions into braids of 20 or more bulbs per braid. These are then hung in an airy, cool to mild and dry position until ready to be cut from the braid for use.

Garlic is one of the worlds’ ‘Universal’ foods which is indispensible in a variety of culinary dishes. Also since antiquity right up to the present day Garlic is highly valued medicinally for its special antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral properties. Regular consumption of Garlic is felt to lower the risk of many forms of Cancer as well as lower cholesterol; reduce the risk of Diabetes, Heart Disease, and even Stroke. It is also beneficial in eliminating harmful bacteria and parasites in the digestive tract.

Its high mineral content makes it one of the most beneficial of all foods. Perhaps someday Garlic might be medicinally remembered much like the healthy Apple: ‘Some Garlic each day keeps the Doctor away!’

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