It's a mystery to me why there isn't more Canadian-grown garlic. A close relative of onions, leeks and shallots, garlic is no harder to cultivate. Thriving across the land in any moderately fertile, well-drained soil, garlic rewards the careful gardener with plump bulbs from midsummer well into winter. Although it's a perennial bulb, garlic is grown as a hardy annual—hardy because the cloves are planted in the fall and must survive the winter; annual because it is harvested during its first year of growth. There are three secrets to growing garlic: the first two—planting and picking—have to do with timing; the third is all about careful drying.
Unlike other vegetables, garlic (Allium sativum) goes into the ground in late summer or early fall, any time from mid-September to mid-October. When you order garlic to plant, you receive full intact bulbs, no different from the garlic that sits on your kitchen counter for cooking. You then split the bulbs into individual cloves for planting; each clove you plant can yield a full bulb—or head—the following summer. Unless they are tiny, size is of little consequence; as you separate cloves, try to keep the protective papery husk around each one.
Garlic is best planted in full sun, in a bed about a metre wide. The soil should be well drained, and dug to a depth of at least 20 centimetres, then raked to a smooth, level surface. Draw out furrows of about four to six centimetres deep across the bed with the corner of a hoe. Leave 20 centimetres between the rows. Push single cloves into the furrows, about 15 centimetres apart, until the tips are barely visible, then draw in the ridges of soil from the furrows over the planted cloves to a depth of five centimetres.
Planted early, garlic may show a few points of green growth the same fall. In regions where snow cover comes and goes, mulch the garlic bed just before the first hard freeze. A layer of dry leaves (10 centimetres) is enough to keep the earth from freezing and thawing repeatedly.
Very early the following spring, garlic's broad blue-green leaves begin to grow solidly and by the end of May will reach a surprising height. (One visitor, looking at our garlic patch in May, wondered how we'd managed to get the "corn" so far along.) Insects aren't interested in garlic plants, and spring rains are often enough to see them through to maturity.
A double yield: Garlic scapes in June
In mid-June, curly green pigtails emerge from the centre of each plant. These are the scapes, hard stalks topped with tiny bulbils. All experts agree that it's best to nip garlic in the bud, as it were, snapping off the scapes after they have made a loop or two, to send more energy to the developing bulbs. The scapes' tender tops (as opposed to the hard fibrous bottom portion) are loaded with flavour. Peel and thinly slice them and add to a pesto, stew or frittata.