Buying garlic that’s not from China can be a challenge. Our domestic garlic industry has never recovered toits pre-1997 state, before the Canadian International Trade Tribunal found China was dumping its cheaper garlic in Canada. These days, domestic garlic production has become a “cottage industry,” says Jim Brandle, chief executive of the non-profit Vineland Research and Innovation Centre near St. Catharines, Ont. And in spite of increasing consumer demand for locally grown produce, farmers are still reluctant to ramp up the supply.That may explain why your local farmers’ market is constantly running out of the stuff. But don’t despair. Gardening expert Mark Macdonald of the organic gardening store West Coast Seeds in Ladner, B.C., explains how to grow your own:
There are two types of garlic: soft-neck garlic, the shipping-friendly kind typically found in grocery stores, and hard-neck garlic, that’s commonly sold at farmers’ markets, since it thrives in colder climates. It’s possible to grow both types in Canada, but you may find hard-neck varieties more reliable.
Mr. Macdonald recommends a hard-neck variety called Red Russian, which, he says, is tasty and easy to grow. “It’s got more heat to it,” he says.
It may be possible to plant cloves from the garlic you buy for dinner. Organic garlic, purchased from a farmers’ market, will likely grow. But the stuff from the supermarket may not, as some growers give their garlic a blast of radiation or other treatment to extend its shelf life, rendering it infertile. For best results, buy bulbs at gardening stores specifically meant for planting.
Now is the best time of year to start planting. In B.C. and the maritime provinces, where the weather is milder, it’s possible to leave this as late as November. As a rule, though, plant before the first frost.
Separate your bulb into cloves, but don’t remove the papery skin. Each clove will eventually become a bulb. Plant them with pointed ends up, about 5 cm deep and 15 cm apart, in soil that has been mixed with some organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted mushroom manure.
Find a sunny spot. If you have a low, wet garden, consider building a raised bed. The cloves will need some moisture over the fall and winter, but they risk rotting in wet soil.
The next step is to wait.
“You really don’t have to do very much,” Mr. Macdonald says. Just keep the area free from weeds.
It’s not necessary to fertilize garlic, but if you want to give your crop a boost, add fertilizer in the spring, once it begins to sprout. Mr. Macdonald suggests using an organic, balanced fertilizer, or fertilizer that contains equal amounts of basic nutrients. (You can tell a fertilizer is balanced by its rating on the label. Mr. Macdonald says to look for one with an equal ratio, like “4-4-4.”) By around June, hard-neck garlic will begin to bloom, sending up “scapes,” or flower stalks. Soft-neck varieties do not produce scapes. Cut these off to encourage the plant to focus its energy on its roots. Don’t discard them, though. Scapes are delicious in pesto, salads and stir-fries.
Wait until about two-thirds of the plant has withered and yellowed before harvesting. In the Vancouver area, this generally happens around the end of July, but the best gauge of when they’re ready is to ensure the plant is well withered.When the lower portion of the plant has dried up, it’s a good sign the papery layers around the bulb have adequately formed, ensuring it will last in storage.
Gently pull up the plants.
If the weather is warm and dry, simply lay the uprooted plants on their side in the garden. Otherwise, bring them inside and lay them on a rack, out of direct sunlight in a well-ventilated area. Dry them for at least two weeks, making sure the entire plant is completely dehydrated and you see no signs of green.
Curing ensures the protective skin around the bulbs doesn’t get mouldy. Using a dry brush, clean off the dirt. If you’ve grown soft-neck garlic, you can braid the stems and hang it up to store. For hard-neck garlic, trim the stems down to about 10 cm. Cured properly and stored in a dry, well-ventilated place, garlic can keep for around six months.
Or you can just eat it fresh out of the ground.
But save a few of the fattest bulbs for planting. “You don’t want to eat the best-looking ones,” Mr. Macdonald says. “That’s going to ensure the best genetic traits for next year.”