If I had just one bed on a tiny plot, I would grow garlic in it. It is relatively low maintenance and, if the conditions are right, it is easy to produce a decent crop. I plant cloves of garlic at the end of October to dream of heavy bulbs plaited and hanging in the kitchen by the following August. If you haven’t got hold of any garlic bulbs yet, there is still time – it is fine to plant them in November and early December, unless the ground is frozen. I go early for two reasons: one, to get something under my belt for the next season and feel like I’ve got the plot ticking over; two, to have the delight of seeing small green shoots poking through the soil in January, a life-affirming sight in the dead of winter.
Once planted, garlic needs a decent period of cold weather to make the bulbs swell once the growing season starts again. For this reason, I wouldn’t plant them in spring or else the bulbs will be disappointingly small. Buy garlic from nurseries or garden centres rather than using bulbs from supermarkets, which may have diseases or have been grown in different climates to ours.
Ordinary garlic varieties are divided into softneck and hardneck types – softneck garlic does not produce a flower stalk, stores well and has a subtler flavour, while hardneck will readily produce a stalk, needs to be used up for before winter and tends to have a stronger flavour.
I am growing three varieties this time: one softneck variety called ‘Early Purple Wight’, with hues more lilac than purple and can be ready as early as May, and two hardneck types – ‘Lautrec Wight’, which has creamy white skin streaked with salmon pink, and ‘Carcassonne Wight’, which also has pinkish cloves.
I planted my garlic in a bed where the potatoes have just finished. Never plant garlic or other allium crop like onions in the same bed two seasons in a row as it will encourage disease. The potatoes have left the soil with a good, open structure which needed little digging, just clearing of weeds and small stones.
During the spring and summer I added plenty of compost to the bed for earthing up the potatoes, so I don’t need to add much more in preparation, but it’s normally a good idea to add a balanced fertiliser, well-rotted manure or some spent wood ash to the soil before planting garlic.
Separate the garlic bulbs into individual cloves and plant them six inches apart, pushing them flat end first into the soil so they are just below the surface. I cover the bed loosely with wide gauge netting to stop the foxes, who love a bit of freshly dug soil, trampling and disturbing the cloves. At this time of year there is normally enough rain to start them off, but it’s been very dry in London for the past month, so I watered the bed a little. This week the temperature is forecast to drop quite considerably, so just be aware that over-watering newly planted garlic right before a chill will run the risk of damage.
From now until harvest time, there is very little to do except a gentle hoeing between rows to keep the weeds in check. If left, weeds will run rampant because the skinny garlic shoots take up very little space. If your site suffers from onion and garlic rust or white rot, cover the entire bed with a fine mesh like Enviromesh to prevent your crop being attacked. Apart from that, you can just watch the green shoots grow. You can see why it is one of my favourites.