I’m delighted to welcome Hannah Flynn from The London Herb Garden to the blog. I absolutely love growing herbs, but have only ever had the luxury of window sills and postage stamp space living in Sarf London. What I love about The London Herb Garden is that it targets people in the same position, which is why I’m so pleased Hannah is going to write for us regularly, so that we can produce a variety of herbs to use in our own kitchens – from smallest of spaces. Today Hannah is writing about garlic, a must have ingredient, so without further ado I declare the kitchen garden open….
British garlic is having something of a renaissance with new varieties springing up every year. There is even an annual garlic festival on the Isle of Wight. Garlic is a member of the allium family and grows well in the British climate, and is a plant you should be considering planting now if you want to have homegrown samples to fry up with your spring vegetables next year. As you know, you eat the bulbous root of the garlic plant, which is related to onions, chives and wild ramsons. But you can also eat the leaves of some varieties and use them in stir fries and pesto. Garlic bulbs grow from a single clove, which grows into a plant with many bulbs. However rather than trying to grow a plant from the remains of the garlic you picked up at the supermarket, try one of the many cultivated varieties available in order to boost your herb selection.
The main difference between garlic varieties is whether they are ‘hard top’ or ‘soft top’. When the hard top varieties mature, a single stem will rise from the center of the plant, and a cluster of bulbs will form. Snapping the neck off will cause the bulbs to swell, so should be done to encourage growth. Hard tops are closer to their wild cousin the ramson (which you may have hear about from foraging friends), form a seed stem and the tips and leaves can be eaten. The soft-neck type will not have this stem, but will have a number of soft leaves that can be plaited together for drying. There will be more, but variable-sized, cloves at the base of the plant.
Many gardeners grow both varieties in order to benefit from the pros of both. Good varieties to choose in the UK are obviously British developed varieties like Solent Wight or Purple Wight from the Isle of Wight, but there are plenty of other European varieties that will grow in the UK with enough care. Jolimont is a great French soft neck variety, which can be harvested in green garlic in May or left later for drying. It has an intense and fragrant flavour. Vayo is a hardy, hard neck variety which is very close to wild ramsons, and will grow well in the north of the UK. Or you could show off with elephant garlic varieties for milder garlic flavour.
Either way you should plant now as garlic needs to be exposed to temperatures below 4C over the winter to grow well. People in other countries often refrigerate their bulbs before planting, but that won’t be necessary for anyone in the UK! Bulbs planted now will come up as early as March or as late as mid-July depending on the variety, so make sure you check before ordering. If you want to plant your own garlic this winter sow garlic cloves into individual plant pots or modules 5-6cm down, leave in a sheltered place and make sure the soil doesn’t dry out. In March plant out into a larger pot (at least 15cm deep) or into well-mulched soil, with the bulbs a good 2-3 cm below the surface. Most garlic is hardy up to -23C so frosts are unlikely to be a problem. So all you need to do is wait.
Your garlic is ready to harvest when the outer leaves turn brown. Don’t wait too long or the papery wrappers can start to disintegrate, but leaving a little longer can increase the pungency of the flavour in your bulbs. Once the garlic has been harvested you can either leave for a few weeks (with leaves on to prevent fungi) or eat fresh and green.And if all else fails you can always go foraging for ramsons in May.