If there were a contest for the lowest-maintenance edible, garlic would definitely be a front-runner. Unlike blight-prone tomatoes, heat-sensitive lettuces, or pick-me-everyday peas, garlic is totally undemanding. Plant and forget—and that’s just one reason to grow it.
There’s also its unmistakable flavour, of course. But garlic is more than just a kitchen staple; like its cousins, onion, scallion, chive, and leek, garlic is also a food gardener’s ally. Known as alliums (from the botanical family Alliaceae), these strongly scented edibles are often planted among pest-prone plants and around fruit trees to repel insects.
But with garlic bulbs widely—and cheaply—available in stores, are they worth the garden space? Absolutely. Especially if you plant an unusual variety (you won’t find ‘Nootka Rose’ at Safeway) and take advantage of garlic’s built-in fringe benefits: green garlic, raw garlic, and garlic scapes.
October is the perfect garlic-planting month, though you can plant it any time in fall up until our first frost. It wants full sun and fertile, well-drained soil, so dig in compost or well-rotted manure if your soil is lacking. Choose garlic bought from your farmer’s market or local seed company, looking for heads with the largest cloves (which will in turn produce larger heads). I like Russian Red, an heirloom hardneck variety with a purple tinge, Leningrad, a hardneck Porcelain type that produces large cloves, and Inchelium Red, a mild-flavoured softneck that stores well.
Separate the cloves just before planting (don’t remove the outer skins!) and plant—pointy-end up—2 inches (5cm) deep and 6 inches (15cm) apart. Early next year you’ll see signs of life as garlic shoots begin to appear above the soil. By early spring, you can begin to harvest green—or immature—garlic, either digging up the underdeveloped bulbs or clipping slender green stalks as needed. This early in the game, you can eat the entire plant—raw. Green garlic has a mild flavour and can be used in place of green onions.
If you’ve planted a hardneck variety of garlic, you’re in for a treat come late spring. Hardneck garlic (in contrast to smaller-cloved, easy-to-braid softneck types) produces looping central stalks called scapes, which are delicious steamed, stir-fried, or—my personal favourite—made into a pesto. Lopping off the scape benefits more than your belly: it forces the plant’s energy into producing a bigger bulb.
Once the bottom half of its leaves have dried (usually around early July), garlic is ready for harvest. Impatient types don’t have to wait, however: by June, the heads have largely formed and can be harvested “raw.” Raw garlic hasn’t cured—and therefore doesn’t store well—but like green garlic has a more delicate flavour than your standard garlic clove.
If you do plan to wait for those tops to yellow, June is the time to stop watering (this helps to cure the bulbs). To harvest, gently dig up the bulbs, brush off any remaining soil, and hang in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place until the skins are dry. They should keep for at least six months.