Late summer and autumn are the best times to grow garlic

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Garlic - Picture courtesy PixabayGarlic - Picture courtesy PixabayGarlic, be it raw, pickled, baked, or boiled, is the cornerstone of cuisines the world over and renowned for its health-giving properties. Here’s everything you need to know about growing and using garlic.

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There are countless famous dishes featuring garlic, too many to mention here, but the simply delicious Italian “Aglio Et Olio” (Garlic and Olive Oil Pasta) - classic French “Escargots à la Bourguignonne” (Snails in Garlic and Herb Butter) - or the mouth-watering Spanish dish “Gambas al Ajillo” (Garlic Shrimps) come to mind. Depending on the variety, and how you cook it, garlic can be mellow and delicate, or punchy and assertive. And, whether you like just a hint of garlic, a distinct presence, or a full-blown garlic flavour in your dishes, you are sure to agree that it improves and enriches our food.

Garlic, along with wheat and rye, is one of the oldest known cultivated crops, and closely intertwined with human history over thousands of years. The garlic we know today is a domesticated crop and although it cannot be proven, many researchers consider central Asia to be its place of origin, from whence it made its way around the world, following the major trade routes and spreading to India and Europe, and then to North and South America, as the Conquistadors and other Europeans arrived.

The earliest known compilation of culinary recipes, The Yale Babylonian Tablet, dating from 1600 - 700 BC, shows that the cornerstone of the Mesopotamian diet were plants from the onion family, and there is historical evidence of its use by the Babylonians 4500 years ago. Both the Indian and Egyptian cultures referred to it 5000 years ago; and some writings suggest that garlic was grown in China as far back as 4000 years ago.

During the time of the Pharaohs the Egyptians worshiped garlic, placing clay models of the bulbs in the tomb of Tutankhamen. In fact, garlic was so highly-prized it was even used as currency. Garlic remains one of the common staple foods of Egypt, and the famous “Ful Medames” recipe which consists of fava beans served with oil, garlic and lemon juice can be traced back to Pharaonic roots. The word “medames” is Coptic for ‘buried’ which refers to the way it was initially cooked in a pot buried in hot coals or sand. Today, ful medames is exported to many Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.

Libyan food would simply not be the same without garlic which is usually added to most dishes that involve preparing a tomato sauce, or stew, and especially for couscous and pasta sauce. To preserve its goodness, flavour, and aroma, it is finely chopped over the sauce as it boils, and just before taking it off the heat.

Garlic was equally important to the Romans and praised by Virgil and other poets of antiquity. It was introduced into various parts of Europe during the Roman campaigns, and has been grown in European gardens since at least the 16th century. The ancient Greeks also used garlic a lot, and athletes of the original Olympic Games traditionally chewed a clove of garlic before participating.

Universally garlic has been known as “the stinking rose,” a term reportedly going back to Greek and Roman times; and folklore tells us that vampires feared the stinking rose and it repelled them. Garlic was also believed to be protection against the “evil eye,” and was said to ward off jealous nymphs who terrorize pregnant women, and engaged maidens.

French priests of The Middle Ages used garlic to protect themselves against the bubonic plague, and, because raw garlic is a powerful natural antibiotic, it was used to make poultices to dress the wounds of soldiers during the Second World War, when antibiotics were scarce. Garlic has also been used for centuries in China and Japan to treat high blood pressure. In first-century India, garlic and onion were thought to prevent heart disease and rheumatism. And let us not forget to mention the alleged aphrodisiacal powers of garlic in Shakespearean England!

If nearly every culture has used garlic for general health and longevity - the ancient Egyptians, Israelites, Greeks, Babylonians, Romans, and Chinese - you too should include it in your diet for good health.

Garlic Flower. Picture courtesy PixabayGarlic Flower. Picture courtesy PixabayGarlic is a hardy perennial which belongs to the same family as onions, shallots, and leeks. It produces flat grey-green, spear like leaves, and globular, white, pink, or mauve flower heads. The plant dies back after flowering and the garlic we consume is really a series of young bulbs or cloves, encased in a papery covering. These cloves are the stored food the plant uses to generate new growth the following season.

Mainly two types of garlic are grown today in temperate and tropical regions all over the world; namely the “hard-neck” and “soft-neck” types. Both have many different cultivars, which vary in size and growth habit, and the tunics, as well as the cloves themselves are not always white, but often come with tinges of pink, red, purple or brown. Garlic can be grown throughout South Africa, as long as you select the correct cultivar for your climate.

Soft-neck Garlic (Allium sativum) is the most commonly found type because it has better storage qualities. Soft necks are recognized by their white papery skin and abundance of cloves, often forming several layers around the central core. The flexible stalk also allows soft neck garlic to be formed into garlic braids.

Hard-neck Garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) is a group of cultivars originating from climates with colder winters. They produce fewer, larger cloves than the soft-necks, and less of an outer bulb wrapper, or none at all. This makes them more sensitive to handling and reduces their shelf life.

Elephant Garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) is actually more closely related to leeks than garlic, and requires a long, warm growing season to produce well. It produces a small number of very large cloves with a mild flavour, which is delicious raw, if thinly sliced.

Health Benefits:

Today, scientific research shows that garlic is an amazing resource of phytochemicals (botanicals) whose wide range of actions can benefit health. Studies also show that garlic protects against infection and inflammation, lowers the risk of heart disease, and has anti-cancer and anti-aging effects. It is one of the best-selling preventive medicines in Europe, where it is accepted as safe and effective by medical authorities and government officials.

Garlic contains a wide range of trace minerals, including copper, iron, zinc, magnesium, germanium, and especially selenium. In addition, garlic contains many sulphur compounds, vitamins A and C, fibre, and various amino acids.

Garlic Butter. Picture courtesy PixabayGarlic Butter. Picture courtesy PixabayIn the Kitchen:

Garlic appears extensively in the cuisines of the world, and no matter which one is your favourite, there is bound to be a couple of recipes featuring garlic - don’t be scared to include garlic, it is very versatile, going with almost anything!

Garlic, ginger and onion are an indispensable trio of flavours in the cuisines of South Asia, with many Asian stir-fry recipes starting off with garlic cooked in oil. And, if you add chillies, kaffir lime leaves, sugar and fish sauce, your stir-fry will take on an unmistakably Thai flavour.

Chinese delicacies that belong to one of the six prominent culinary regional cuisines: Cantonese, Hunan, Hakka, Mandarin, Sichuan, and Zhejiang, all commonly include garlic, ginger, scallions, soy sauce, oyster or fish sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil in their dishes.

Garlic, together with onions, chilli powder, cumin, coriander, and oregano are what give many Mexican dishes their very distinctive flavour.

Fresh garlic is often preferable in recipes, but many people are afraid of raw garlic due to the fact that it’s often overdone. However, with the right balance of acidity and seasonings, the addition of raw garlic can be both fragrant and pleasant. Garlic flakes or powder are acceptable substitutes in breading mixes, for frying foods, or in blended dips, where the flavour of raw garlic may be too strong.

Roasting garlic is one of the most delicious ways to enjoy it, because roasting mellows the pungency of the bulb and releases the sugars, giving it a rich caramel flavour. To roast a whole head of garlic, slice off the top of the head and drizzle it with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and wrap with foil. Bake at 180°C for approximately 40 minutes. Once the roasted garlic has cooled, simply squeeze the bottom of the head and the roasted cloves will pop out.

When frying, be very careful not to burn it because burnt garlic has a very distinct, bitter, and unpleasant taste. To prevent burning when frying, reduce the heat when adding garlic, or add it towards the end of the cooking process.

Garlic is also a great addition to a marinade, but over an open flame, garlic can burn on the grill, so remove any morsels prior to grilling.

Always ensure that you store garlic in a cool place with good air circulation. Do not store in the refrigerator, or in plastic bags.

Growing garlic in raised beds. Picture courtesy PixabayGrowing garlic in raised beds. Picture courtesy PixabayCultivation:

If you can grow a daffodil or freesia bulb then you can grow your own garlic - it’s that easy! And, because garlic accumulates sulphur, a naturally occurring fungicide, it will help protect other plants from diseases, and deter many garden pests.

Because garlic takes up so little space, even those with very small gardens can raise enough to be self-sufficient for a large part of the year. In the ‘good old days’ gardeners planted garlic which had sprouted in the kitchen directly into their garden beds and it produced good crops. Unfortunately this is no longer true of garlic purchased from your local supermarket, which may sprout, but if planted out never amounts to anything. This is because much of our garlic is imported, and to pass customs it needs to be irradiated to ensure that no live soil borne pathogens are carried into the country. This process also destroys the viability of the garlic, so it won’t grow! Organic garlic cloves can be obtained from South African websites which stock heirloom seed.

Just like many flower bulbs, traditional garden varieties of garlic are day-length sensitive, growing best during the cooler months of the year when the days are short and the nights are long. Garlic cloves are planted in late summer or autumn, and harvested the following summer. The increasing day length at the onset of spring will initiate flowering and bulb formation. During this period it is essential that the summer weather is hot and dry, as heavy rainfall, heat and humidity, can cause the bulbs to rot and make the plant more susceptible to fungal diseases. For this reason crops grown in subtropical regions should not be irrigated overhead and must be harvested as early as possible.

Sprouting garlic - Picture courtesy PixabaySprouting garlic - Picture courtesy PixabayGarlic requires full sun, very well-drained soil, and a good air flow around the plants. Prior to planting, dig the beds over thoroughly and add some compost or well-matured manure. Garlic does not thrive on acid soils (below pH 6.5,) so if your soil is too acidic, apply agricultural lime to the soil a couple of weeks before planting.

Allow 15cm between individual cloves and 30cm between the rows. Plant the cloves so the tips are about 2.5cm below the surface of the soil. In very light soils, planting deeper can encourage better yields, but on heavy soils planting deeply is not recommended.

Newly planted cloves must be watered regularly to help the roots develop, and established crops must be watered moderately, but regularly, during prolonged dry weather. Overwatering established plants may cause rot, which is especially prevalent if the plant is sodden during the cold months. In the winter rainfall regions garlic must be planted in extremely well-drained soil, or where it is protected from excessive rainfall. Stop watering garlic altogether when the foliage begins to go yellow, indicating the onset of maturity.

As the foliage of garlic casts little shade, crops can easily become swamped by weeds, which negatively affect the plants’ growth and subsequent yields. Weed regularly by hand, as hoeing can damage the top of the bulbs. To avoid this, consider planting through black plastic sheeting.

Harvesting:

Your garlic will be ready to be harvested 8 to 9 months after planting, and you will know it is ready when most of the lower leaves have browned and the upper ones are still green.

If you’ve ever grown onions, it’s easy to assume garlic is the same, and you should wait until all the leaves have fallen over; but this is not a good idea when it comes to garlic, because by the time all the leaves are dead the bulbs may have split open.

Keep several plump, healthy cloves from your freshly harvested garlic and allow them to sprout before replanting into the garden.

Braided garlic - Picture courtesy PixabayBraided garlic - Picture courtesy PixabayStoring:

To cure garlic before storing, lay whole plants out to dry in a warm shady area, and when the outer skin is papery, brush off as much dirt as possible, and then clip the roots. To hang garlic up in bunches for storage braid the stems before they are dry, and store in a cool place with good air circulation.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Garlic plants which are exposed to adverse weather conditions, such as fluctuating temperatures in spring, may produce cloves on the stem above the ground, called “top sets” and these can be used in the normal way. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about this condition.

Shallow planting and late harvesting can lead to some of the cloves going green. These can still be used as normal, but are unlikely to store well.

Hard-neck garlic cultivars readily produce flower stalks which should be removed immediately, but these are delicious added to stir fries.

Soft-neck cultivars also occasionally produce flowers if exposed to adverse growing conditions such as heat and drought.

There are a few fungal diseases to watch out for like leek rust, to which garlic is very susceptible, with the foliage developing orange pustules. It is not very susceptible to downy mildew like onions and shallots.

White rot is a serious disease of the allium family, caused by a soil-borne fungus which can persist in the soil for many years. Above ground symptoms are a yellowing and wilting of the foliage, especially in dry weather. Under wetter conditions the plants may not wilt, but will become loose in the soil. Below ground, the pathogen rots the roots and then invades the bulb, causing a white, fluffy fungus growth to appear on the base of the bulb, which later becomes covered in small, round, black structures. There are no chemical treatments against this disease.

Onion thrips are garlic’s most common pest. They rasp the leaves to acquire sap, causing damage that slows growth and bulb production. Severe damage can cause the plants to wilt and die.

Also, watch out for the allium leaf-mining fly, and leek moth, as these pests can cause damage to the foliage of garlic.

Garlic is also susceptible to stem and bulb nematode - a microscopic wormlike animal which lives and reproduces inside its host, eating parts of the stems, leaves and bulbs. Sometimes the growth of the plant is not affected significantly, but the bulb quality is reduced due to tissue breakdown, deformation, or discoloration. Populations can build up for several seasons without visible damage, and are capable of surviving for several years in the surrounding soil. Healthy garlic plants can tolerate moderately large densities of these nematodes without a significant drop in production, but then suddenly populations can reach a level in which the entire crop can be destroyed in a single year. Getting clean planting material is the first step in the fight against nematodes. Marigolds help keep nematodes at bay, so plant them between the rows and dig them into the soil once the crop is harvested.

Caution:

Garlic is considered safe in cooking but if overused can have adverse side effects, so always consult a health practitioner before embarking on a home treatment programme.