Growing garlic is one of the easiest and most rewarding things one can do, and if I was to suggest you try just one new thing in your garden this year, it would be this. It can even be grown in pots if you are garden-less. Buying locally grown garlic can get expensive and I refuse to buy imported Chinese-grown garlic, which it literally a chemical cocktail, laced with growth inhibitors (to help stop the garlic from sprouting), chlorine (to make it whiter than white) and the methyl bromide (used to fumigate it on arrival into the country). (Read here for more info on why buying cheap garlic is a no-no). The third and in my opinion the best option, is to grow your own!
You don't need a whole lot of space, although it will be occupied for 6 months straight. We go by the rule of 100 plants per square metre, but if you have more space you can leave more room between the rows. All you need to do is get your hands on some locally grown -preferably organic- garlic. Some garden centres will have it in stock right now or the other best way to get your hands on some is to visit your local farmers market. I buy about a kilo of seed garlic, which gives us over 100 garlic plants. More than enough to get us through an entire year.
Garlic is one of those plants that you can get in the ground and basically forget about. They need no staking, no trimming and are very resistant to bugs and disease.
All you need to do is find a spot in your garden that gets all-day sun, and make sure you dig in some good manure and compost at least a week before planting. Some people say to chill your bulbs a week prior to planting, which we have tried this year. A dear reader pointed out that this helps to trick them into sprouting, by changing their 'body clock' so they think it's time to grow when put into the nice warm soil (thanks Kath!). Although we've never done it any other year before and they've still grown fine...
Just before you are ready to plant, break apart your bulbs into single cloves. Mark out where you are going to plant them by using a stick or rope, not 100% essential but we find it's the easiest way to make sure they are evenly spaced. Space rows 10-15 cm apart (or up to 30cm if space permits), with 10 cm between each plant. Plant garlic cloves with the pointy end facing upwards, 3cm below the soil surface and cover well. We tend to place all the cloves in the ground first, then push them in once we've mapped out where they are going. The best time to plant garlic is in Autumn between March and April (Southern Hemisphere) although there is the old rule that says to plant on the shortest day of the year and harvest on the longest. In NZ/Australia you can plant any time up until mid June, but just note that the later you plant, the smaller the resulting bulbs will be at harvest time.
Once in the ground, water them regularly. At least twice a week or more for sandy soil. Feed up every fortnight over the first two months with a good organic seaweed or fish fertiliser, but avoid feeding in the later months as too much fertiliser can result in lots of leaf growth and very little happening under the soil, where you want the bulb to be fattening up. Stop watering altogether over the last few weeks (November-December) when the leaves start to turn yellow/brown or the plant will retain too much moisture which can lead to bulbs rotting later on.
To harvest, gently dig up each bulb being careful not to damage it. Leave the tops on and shake of excess soil from the roots. Hang in a dry place out of direct sunlight for a couple of weeks. The tops can now be plaited or trimmed from the bulb. If garlic is stored correctly in a dry spot it can last until the following autumn, where you will be able to set aside a few bulbs to plant again...