Garlic has been cultivated for thousands of years. It is mentioned in ancient Greek, Indian and Chinese writings, while garlic bulbs were found in the Tomb of Tutankhamen when archeologists first opened it in 1922. The bulbs were found to date from 1500 BC.
With such an illustrious history to tap into, permaculture gardeners may well want to make garlic a part of their plot design. In fact, if you cook with garlic – and it is increasingly found in kitchens everywhere – it is a good idea to grow your own. This is because the vast majority of garlic is imported, and usually treated with chemicals to preserve it during transportation.
Garlic comes in two types: soft-neck and hard-neck. This classification refers to the relative stiffness of the stem just above the bulb. Generally, soft-neck species last longer in storage, while hard-neck varieties are hardier. Soft-necks prefer a milder climate than their hard-neck cousins, but with judicious use of microclimates, permaculturists in most areas should be able to cultivate either or both. Purple-striped and Porcelain are popular choices of hard-neck species, while Artichoke garlic and Silverskins give good crops of soft-necks.
Prepare the Soil
Garlic prefers a well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter. Add compost – ideally one that is rich in manure – to the soil before planting your garlic, watering it well. The compost also helps keep the structure of the soil relatively loose, which helps garlic, as they do not have the strongest of root systems. Garlic also like a slightly alkaline soil, so if your garden bed has a low pH, you might consider adding organic agricultural lime to raise it a little before planting.
Plant garlic in mid-fall. This will give you a harvest at the start of the following summer. The plant goes dormant during the winter, be reinvigorates with growth come springtime.
Because much garlic available in supermarkets and grocers has been treated with preservatives and pesticides, it is preferable to source your cloves from an organic nursery. This ensures you are not introducing any unwanted elements into your plot.
You plant individual cloves from a bulb. When breaking apart a bulb for cloves to plant, try to keep as much as possible of the papery covering of the clove intact, and some of the base plate of the bulb attached. Choose the biggest, plumpest cloves for planting; these will give you the strongest, biggest plants. Plant with the pointed end upwards, at a depth of around 3 inches. Plant individual cloves around 7 inches apart.
Some gardeners like to soak their cloves for a couple of hours prior to planting in a mixture of water, baking soda and seaweed fertilizer, believing this helps protect the cloves from fungal infection. However, on a permaculture plot, it is not really necessary.
Once you have had your first harvest, you can also replant cloves from your crop.
Generally, garlic is one of the most beneficial of companion plants in the permaculture garden. Its chemical makeup means it repels a large number of potential pests, not only insects such as aphids but also larger mammals such as moles, squirrels and deer. Its pungent scent seems to be a primary reason for this, and its strong taste puts animals off trying garlic a second time. But garlic also protects plants around it by accumulating sulfur in the soil. Sulfur is a naturally occurring fungicide, and its presence helps protect plants from soil diseases. Plants that particularly benefit from companion planting with garlic include fruit trees, cabbage, broccoli, kale, tomatoes, and cane fruits, such as blackberries and raspberries. Really the only plants to avoid planting in proximity to garlic are peas and beans, as it appears to have a detrimental effect on their growth.
Mulching your garlic plants is a good idea, both to prevent weeds, which can outcompete garlic roots for soil nutrients and water, to preserve soil moisture, and to provide a source of nutrients. Straw seems to be a particularly good choice for mulching garlic. This helps protect the plants during the colder winter months. Once the last frost of winter has passed, it is a good idea to add more compost to the soil around your garlic plants, as this will help promote plump bulb growth over the spring.
Garlic does not need watering until the spring, when the soil should be kept damp to the touch. Stop watering at the start of the summer when you see the leaves begin to turn yellow, as stopping watering will allow the bulbs to firm up.
At the start of summer, you will probably see your garlic plants develop flowering tops. Left alone these will curl over and then form into harder, spiny tendrils. There is no particular detriment to leaving these tendrils – called ‘scrapes’ – on the plant, but cutting them back can help promote stringer bulb growth. If cut them back before they begin to curl, the scrapes can be used in the kitchen, imparting a subtle garlic flavor to salads and soups. Scrapes are more commonly a feature of hard-neck varieties.
While precise harvesting times will depend on your location and climate conditions, generally, garlic planted in mid-fall will be ready to harvest in mid-summer. When most of the lower leaves have turned yellow-brown, it is time to harvest. You want the upper leaves to still be green; otherwise the bulbs will not form the papery wrappers that allow you to store them. The bulbs at this stage are still delicate so don’t pull them up. Instead, dig the rootstock out carefully.
Once harvest, take your garlic plants out of the sun and store in a shaded, dry place, preferably one that receives a draft. Tie bundles of 8-10 plants together, or use a mesh bag, and hang the garlic up for four to six weeks. This allows the bulbs to ‘cure’, developing the distinctive papery skins. Once formed, trim off the roots and the stalks to around 1 inch above the bulb. Store in a light, dry location (but not in direct sunlight); it should keep for between six and eight months.