Diarmuid Gavin: Clove & digger
Growing garlic couldn't be easier
As we enter the cough and cold season, many of us turn to natural remedies for cures. Garlic is one such, used for centuries for medicinal purposes for its antibacterial properties. During both World Wars, it was used to treat wounds and prevent gangrene and was also known as 'Russian penicillin' due to the country's reliance on it as a natural cure-all.
And of course, it is now a staple in our kitchens, adding that familiar pungent scent and flavour to our favourite dishes. I can't imagine many Italian dishes without lashings of garlic in the sauces; or my personal favourite: cloves roasting with other root vegetables as part of a hearty seasonal winter dinner.
If you want to grow garlic, plant it between October and early April. Autumnal planted garlic will generally produce bigger cloves and a better crop. Get it in the ground now for next year's harvesting - bulbs planted in spring will give you a later harvest.
You can buy bulbs online or from garden centres that will be disease-free and suitable for our climate - supermarket ones are best for cooking but not for cultivation. Pick an open, sunny site where bulbs can ripen. Ideally, the soil should be free-draining as bulbs can rot in very wet soil. If your soil is too waterlogged in winter, you can start them off in pots for transplanting in spring.
On the other hand, in dry soil, make sure that the bulbs don't suffer from a lack of water. Don't plant in freshly manured soil as this can also cause rotting, but do add some general fertiliser before planting.
Break the garlic bulb open and plant individual cloves 10cm apart from each other. Cloves should be planted just beneath the soil, with pointy end sticking upwards. Plant the biggest cloves in order to get the biggest bulbs.
As with most other bulbs, there's very little maintenance after this - keep the area weed-free and water only in periods of drought during the growing season in late spring.
They're ready to harvest in June to August when you observe their foliage turning yellow and drooping. Pick a dry day, dig up carefully, remove all soil from around the bulbs and let them dry out in the sun.
Leave the stalks on to plait the garlic - this will help to ensure that it stays healthy and fresh while drying. Alternatively, you can dry it out in a net bag. But keep in mind that the bulbs should be treated gently; bulbs that are damaged won't keep well. A cool, dry shed or garage is the best place for storage.
Garlic is a good companion plant for some of your other vegetables as it contains sulphur, which is a natural fungicide. So you might plant a row of garlic next to your potatoes and cabbages but not beside peas and beans as it's thought to slow their growth.
Its pungent smell can also deter aphids and other flies, which makes it a good friend to roses and other susceptible plants. You can make a homemade fungicide and aphid repellent by blending garlic cloves in a mixer with some water, and adding a few drops of liquid detergent which helps the mixture stick to leaves.
Garlic is generally a pretty easy crop to cultivate - its natural compounds protect it well. It may sometimes fall foul to garlic rust or onion rot, in which case you should discard infected bulbs and choose a different site for your next crop.
It can easily be grown in pots and containers too - but only outdoors - so it's perfect for foodies who may only have a courtyard or balcony on which to garden. You will need a soil depth of about 15cm to allow for good root growth, and a good quality compost with added fertiliser. And keep watering as in pots the bulbs will have no access to ground water.
A good variety of garlic is 'Early Purple Wight', which has purple-streaked, strong tasting cloves and can be ready to harvest as early as the middle of May; also 'Solent Wight', which is reliable and stores very well after harvest through the winter.