By Michael H. Thompson
In days gone by folk used treacle as a blood-cleanser, which sounds both yummy and useless at the same time, but if you couldn't afford treacle then you used garlic which came to be known as 'poor-mans-treacle' and also 'gypsies onions'. Romany families would forage in the spring hedgerow for ramsons or wild garlic, using both the bulb and leaf to flavour their stews and for healing.
The best time for planting garlic is in October or November but if - perish the thought - you forget, then a planting in February will work as well. The method is gorgeously simple. First I loosen the soil, and using a no-dig raised bed method pays dividends, a light forking over is all that is needed. Then I take a bulb of garlic and break it into its separate cloves. Using a dibber, or more likely a strong finger, I make a hole and pop a clove in tip uppermost until it's just buried. Textbooks prescribe spacing them 15cm apart in rows 30cm apart but in practice I plant them in much more of a cavalier fashion. A smidgeon of bone-meal and a bucket of rough compost on top for good luck and my work is done. It's not long before green shoots will appear, which is a refreshing sight during the winter months, and come spring the y will romp away to maturity.
As time goes by, I'll hand-weed and water if it's really dry in the spring but otherwise they look after themselves. Garlic can be affected by a disease called leek rust but we have well-drained soil, especially in the raised bed and we have no problem on that score. I'll harvest the garlic sometime in July, leaving them to dry on the surface or in the greenhouse if wet. A few good bulbs are set aside for next year, stored in a dry cool place, hopefully carefully labelled. The rest are tied up in a sort of plait, not quite as neat as you see on French markets but never mind, and then left to hang from the beam of the potting shed to spread their earthy fragrance.
I used to plant garlic brought back from summer holidays in France with reasonable success, indeed any old supermarket garlic can be used. If you get into the habit of keeping a few good bulbs aside for planting the following year then your initial investment will pay dividends. Most garden centres keep a few varieties in stock. Keen growers distinguish between two types of garlic: the hard-neck bulb such as 'purple Moldovan' that has large bulbs which are great for roasting but not so good for storing, and the soft-neck bulb such as the 'Solent Wight' which is smaller but stores well.
Not so long ago, many treated garlic with an air of suspicion but tastes have changed, our cuisine is more international than ever, and garlic is an essential ingredient in so many recipes. It is also considered the king of healing plants, and has been treasured down through the centuries for its naturally anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties, being used to combat cancer, heart disease and major infections. The least experienced of gardeners, with perhaps just a pot or two for a garden, can grow garlic with confidence and enjoy a flavoursome harvest.
Michael Thompson is a professional gardener living in Dorset in southern England. He writes a weekly journal that is found on http://www.englishrosegarden.co.uk of his experiences of working on a traditional English country estate. His writings are woven with wise gardening advice, beautiful photos, whimsical philosophies and observations from nature.