There are thousands of known varieties of garlic in the world. In Australia we have relatively only a few. Garlic comes in all shapes, sizes, colours and strengths and variations of flavour. Sadly, here it is widely known as only white, purple, australian, or chinese, mexican, argentinian, etc!
There are some people who hold the belief that white garlic is bleached, and therefore bad. While this may be true for some imported garlic (I really do not know the truth of this) it is not true for Australian grown garlic. There are many many natural varieties of white garlic, including the magnificent Printanor (pictured below) so please, no garlic discrimination based on colour!
Imported garlic is fumigated with methyl bromide, as is a lot of other imported produce, and some products packaged for domestic consmption, such as rice. Methyl Bromide is an ozone depleting substance, and is also terrible for human health. Its use is banned in the EU, but still used here in Australia for quarantine purposes. After being used as a fumigant, it readily dissipates into the atmosphere – a good thing for anyone eating the food that has been fumigated with it, but not a good thing for the ozone layer. Currently around 300 tonnes of it is used per year for quarantine purposes according to the Australian Department of Environment.
So buy local garlic when you can, grow some yourself if you have the space! Better for you, and for the ozone layer.
The distinct odour of garlic is a result of various sulphur compounds. The sulphurous compound particular to garlic that gives it antibacterial properties is known as allicin. Allicin is only present in crushed garlic, not in whole garlic. Alliin is the precursor to allicin, and when garlic is crushed, the alliin is converted to allicin by the enzyme alliinase. It is only after this change that garlic gains its antibiotic and other therapeutic properties associated with the allicin. Cooking destroys allicin, so for maximum therapeutic benefit, garlic is best eaten raw, crushed or chopped, and with minimal heat treatment. Cooked garlic however also includes other compounds that have a range of therapeutic effects, including reduction of blood pressure, anticancer properties, and immune system effects. In short, for therapeutic benefits, garlic is better eaten crushed or chopped than whole, better raw than cooked. For culinary purposes – use it however you please!
Garlic belongs in the Allium family. There are seven alliums that are cultivated for food:
Allium ampeloprasum, which includes leeks, and elephant (or giant) garlic
Allium cepa, the common onion, potato onion and shallots
Allium chinense, rakkyo
Allium fistulosum, the Japanese bunching or Welsh onion
Allium sativum, true garlic
Allium schoenoprasum, chives, and
Allium tuberosum, garlic chives.
You may have noticed from that list that ‘Elephant garlic’ is not a true garlic. It resembles garlic in form, and it also contains the compound alliin. The plant grows much larger, and it produces large bulbs of four or five large cloves, with a mild garlic flavour, but it is genetically different from garlic. As its common name includes the word garlic, it is easy to see why most people would think that it is a garlic. It does have a bit of a garlic-like taste, but for many fans of garlic, myself included, it is a poor imitation.
Generally it is accepted that there is only one species of true garlic, Allium sativum. The classification of garlic below the species level gets rather complicated, and I won’t delve too far into that here. Garlics can be classified as either bolting (hardneck) or non-bolting (softneck) varieties. The hardnecks produce a scape, which is a long, tall round central stalk with a flower-like spathe that forms on the end. The softneck garlics usually do not produce a scape, but may do under certain conditions.
Hardnecks include the porcelain & rocambole groups, and a few others including purple strip, artichoke, marbled purple stripe and asiatics.
Softnecks include the creole, silverskin, and turban groups.
The spathe is a flower like structure, but not actually a flower. It bursts open to reveal a cluster of bulbils, which are like tiny, miniature bulbs, and are not a true seed. Garlic can be grown from bulbils, however it will take two to three years to form a fully differentiated bulb. Growing from bulbils is a good way to refresh planting stock, as many diseases cannot be transferred this way as they can by planting cloves.
The term ‘seed garlic’ is common, and usually refers to garlic cloves for propagation. True garlic seed can be obtained, but the process is laborious. First the bulbils must be painstakingly removed to allow the flowers to develop. Then after pollination, the seed can be collected. There are a lot of dedicated people around the world working on growing garlic from true garlic seed (TGS). The beauty of this is that as it is not clonally propagated, you could end up with a wonderful new, genetically distinct variety of garlic. I hope to have time to work on this one day.
Garlic is usually planted in autumn, and harvested in early summer or late spring. There are some varieties that can be planted later, up to late winter, and some growers, particularly in southern areas such as Tassie, plant as early as February or March. I am to plant around Anzac day, or as soon as we get the season break – the first decent rain. There is a common saying that one should plant garlic on the shortest day of the year, and harvest on the longest. Ignore it. I am not sure where this comes from, but I do not find it helpful for our seasons. I believe it is true of shallots however.
To plant garlic, carefully break open a bulb and separate the individual cloves. Plant them at 10 – 20cms between the plants, in rows 20 – 40 cms apart. This year we have sown our garlic at 12 cm x 30 cms, and this works for us for ease of weeding and irrigation.
Garlic needs to be kept moist, but not wet, throughout the growing season. It doesn’t like boggy wet ground. It needs sun on its leaves in order to form good sized bulbs, so plant it where it will get plenty, 6 hours a day or more. It doesn’t like weed competition, especially taller weeds that will partly shade the leaves.
It’s not a high nutrient demanding crop, but give it a little complete fertiliser throughout the season, and a bit of potash in spring to encourage bulbing. I give mine a few handfuls of Eco Growth NPK and composted manure at planting, 5 foliar feeds of Nutritech triple ten, a fortnight apart in the spring growth flush, with one feed of a liquid Calcium/Boron, and a bit of Potash in mid spring. Then I leave them well alone until harvest.
Most garlic is cold tolerant – indeed, in Australian level of cold conditions anyway, and some varieties need a period of cold in order to successfully bulb. In choosing what garlic to plant, you are best off obtaining planting stock from a grower near you, that way you will be getting a garlic that should do well in your local conditions.
In late spring, the leaves will start to die back, starting from the lower leaves. When this happens, restrict watering or cut it altogether if the soil is moist. When about half of the leaves have died off, then have a little dig down along side a plant to see if you have nice swollen bulbs. If you do – then it’s time to harvest, if not, then leave them a little longer. Keep checking, garlic tends to put on a lot of size in a very short amount of time. I am digging to check out my garlic all throughout the last few months of the season.
Once harvested, bundled them and hang them, bulbs down, in a shaded, airy place to cure for a few weeks. Then slough off the dried outer skin, trim off the roots and the leaves if you desire, and store in a cool dark place. Garlic should not be stored in the refrigerator. We simply store them in cardboard boxes, not too deep with bulbs, in our ‘back room’, at room temperature, even in the heat of summer.