Garlic - An Age-Old Plant

Garlic has been around for a very long time. One of the earliest references to garlic is in an ancient Chinese script which dates from 2,000BC. Garlic has been used as a medication and food ever since.

Garlic is related to onions and leeks. It is an economical crop which takes little space, is ideal as a companion plant to deter insects, and small amounts of leaves can be picked throughout the growing season to add a little spice to salads.

The ancient Greeks knew about garlic as early as 400BC. While its healing properties were well recognised, entry to the temples of the goddess Cybele was forbidden to anyone who had eaten garlic. The Roman aristocrats never ate it but fed it to their soldiers, labourers and fighting cocks believing it imparted strength, courage and stamina.

Garlic probably made its way to England with the Romans who planted it around their villas in amongst the roses and violets. By the 1600s, garlic was regularly carried as protection against infectious diseases, especially the plague.

Today many of the historical uses of garlic have been confirmed by medical research. On the battlefields of World War II, raw garlic juice was diluted with water and applied with sterile sphagnum moss to all sorts of wounds. It has been used for centuries to treat infections such as diarrhoea and bronchitis. Numerous studies have shown that regular eating of garlic decreases the risk of heart disease. This is because it reduces cholesterol levels, reduces platelet formation, acts to stop the formation of fibrin and reduces blood pressure. It is also believed to interfere with cancer activity.

Garlic oil and concentrated extracts can irritate the mucous membranes of the stomach. Infants, small children, pregnant women and those breast-feeding should not be given garlic oil. Repeated contact with garlic can result in contact dermatitis.

The best way to take garlic is fresh. Fresh garlic is also the best way of cooking with garlic. There is a huge difference in taste between fresh garlic and garlic which has been stored for some months before being sold. While garlic enhances the flavour of other dishes, there are also number of classic dishes which rely on garlic as their main flavour..

Garlic can be divided botanically into softneck and hardneck (top-setting) varieties. Softneck bulbs consist of numerous cloves. Larger cloves form an outer ring surrounding an inner ring of smaller cloves. Top-setting cultivars have one ring of generally larger cloves which surround a central flower stem.

Garlic BulbCredit: Wikimedia

If you want to grow garlic, get some bulbs and carefully separate them into individual cloves. Ensure the bulbs are disease free. There should be no sign of mould, no shrivelled skin and no distorted growing tips. Whole garlic bulbs from the greengrocer are fine but they must be local as imported garlic has probably been sprayed and will not germinate.

Prepare the soil well, adding soil improver and some clay to sandy soil. Sandy soil will need some added phosphorous. If your soil is clay, add soil improver and lots of gypsum. The addition of well-rotted manure is also a good idea.

Garlic hates being water-logged and doesn't appreciate competition from weeds. Plant in late autumn to early winter.

In warm climates, the cloves should be refrigerated at about 10oC for three weeks. This will increase the chances of proper sprouting and bulb formation. Good drainage is important so in heavy soils, plant the bulbs in a raised bed or along ridges. Loosen the soil and dig a hole about 8cm deep.

Place each clove into the soil with the root end (thick end) pointing down. Cover firmly with more soil and water well.

Plant cloves about 10cm apart in rows 40cm apart. If wished, the plants can be dotted around the garden to aid in repelling some insects. Top dress with blood and bone during winter and spring. Keep the plants weed-free. Mulching will help in this regard but don't mulch close to the bulb as it may rot.

If you have extra cloves that have started to sprout, plant them close together and harvest the leaves to add to salads. Or leave them in the ground until early spring and harvest the whole plant just as you would a leek. Use fresh in salads or gently fried in omelettes, soups and quiches.

During the cool winter months, the roots and green tops develop. The bulbs won't start to swell until the weather warms up and the days lengthen. Good root growth fosters a good-sized bulb. Once the bulb begins to swell, fertilising will have no benefit but continue to water well until the bulb has finished growing. Yellowing of the leaves is a sign to stop watering or the bulbs will begin to split. Harvest your crop immediately.

Carefully remove the whole plant from the ground using a garden fork. Shake the dirt from the roots and hang in a dry, airy position out of the direct light. This allows the skins to harden. After a few weeks, they can be hung in bunches or plaited into ropes. Once dry, cut off the leaves about 1cm above the bulbs and store the bulbs in boxes, hessian bags or even old pantyhose. Make sure the air can circulate around each bulb.

Plaited GarlicCredit: Wikimedia

Garlic is generally a healthy plant but can be subject to attack by moulds and fungi. The best solution is to plant with fresh, disease-free cloves in a new position in new soil. Burn any infected plants.

Garlic deters pest in the garden and can be planted between other crops. Mixtures incorporating garlic are used by gardeners to help reduce the incidence of fungal and bacterial disease. It will also kill on contact such pests as small sucking insects such as aphids, most larvae and snails and slugs.

Organic garlic products can be purchased or you can make your own garlic spray. The sprays are only active for up to three days, depending on rain, sunlight and temperature. To make your own garlic spray, chop or crush about 100g of garlic (three or four entire bulbs), mix with 400ml oil, 500ml water and 25g pure soap flakes or horticultural soap. Steep for at least 24 hours. Filter and dilute at 15ml to a litre of water.

There is no way of preventing garlic breath. Chewing parsley and chervil soon after eating garlic will help. The best approach is to do your best to ensure everyone around you eats garlic too. Then no-one will notice the smell.