Growing Garlic.

Garlic has a long history of human cultivation of more than 7,000 years, and was well know to the Ancient Egyptians. It is a native of central Asia and has long been established in the Mediterranean. It’s popularity has spread across the world. Garlic came to Britain with the Romans and has always been cultivated here. Garlic’s big rise in popularity here, began when we Brits started to travel abroad on package tours. On returning home, folks wanted to recreate the wonderful tastes and flavours of the holiday. Then grew the trend for a ‘take-away’ resulting in a big rise in the number of Italian, Chinese and Indian restaurants and take-away’s and garlic was here to stay. It is now a kitchen staple in most British homes.

Garlic is part of the Allium family, along with leeks, onions and chives and is not difficult to grow. A garlic bulb is made up of individual segments that are called cloves, these cloves grow together at the base, to form the bulb. To grow garlic you can just buy a bulb from a shop or supermarket, though this garlic will probably been grown in a much warmer climate. To have a greater selection of varieties that are virus free and grow better in our weather, check out the UK garlic farms and suppliers.

Garlic Varieties

There are two main types of true garlic grown, Softneck  garlic [ Allium Sativum ] and Hardneck garlic [ Allium ophioscorodon ]. They look very much the same but their skin colours, flavours and keeping qualities are a little different. Within these two garlic types there are dozens of varieties.


This is the most widely grown garlic. It is a little more tolerant of our weather conditions, producing good bulbs with lots of cloves and has very good storage qualities. It is usually white but can come in other skin colours. As it’s name suggests, after harvesting the necks become soft and dry, and can then be platted together. These are the traditional garlic ‘ropes’ you see hanging up in stores or markets. It has the best keeping qualities of the two.


This type of garlic is well know for producing fewer, but larger cloves in it’s bulbs. They come in a wide range of skin colours, and are often stronger flavoured and ‘hotter’. After drying, this garlic still has a hard stem in the middle of the bulb which is cut off short. It is usually bought in net bags or tied in a bunch. It storage life is a little less than the softneck.

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Elephant Garlic

[ Allium ampeloprasum ] This is not a true garlic, it is a close perennial relation of the leek. I include it here as a garlic because of it’s popularity and similar growth requirements. Elephant garlic takes it’s name from the huge bulbs it can produce. The bulbs comprise of a small number of very large cloves, they have a much milder garlic flavour and keep very well.  The plant grows larger too, is very hardy and is more tolerant of wet soils.

Growing Garlic – Soil

Although you can grow garlic in most soils, it likes a deep rich soil to grow good sized bulbs. It also like good drainage. So when you prepare your bed, the addition of compost and sand or grit, will help to improve the soil structure and drainage. Dont add manure, even well aged manure can cause the bulbs to rot in wet weather. Instead add a dressing of blood, fish and bonemeal, or a general fertilizer like Growmore.


Garlic needs a period of around 6 weeks of cold to ensure the planted clove grows properly, swelling then splitting into the multi cloved bulb we know. To get this period of cold, the best time to plant is in October or November. Choose a sheltered free draining site if you can and work your soil to a nice crumbly tilth. Plant the individual cloves pointed end up, 5-6 inches apart in rows 8 inches apart. [ you can plant closer together for smaller bulbs, or give more room if you have it ]. Plant the cloves so that the tip is about 1 inch below the surface of the soil. If the weather is very wet or frosty you can protect with fleece or cloches, or as I do, cover the bed with a 2 inch layer of compost. If your soil is very heavy or stays wet though the winter, you can plant your cloves in November into individual pots or modules, use multipurpose compost, and keep them in a cold greenhouse or cold frame for the winter. Keep them just moist, then plant them out the following March or April.  Plant your Elephant garlic in the same way as for the true garlic, just plant the cloves wider apart to allow for the larger plant growth. Elephant garlic is more tolerant of the cold and wet and of heavy soils. If you struggle to grow garlic, try the Elephant garlic it copes with cold wet winters better that ordinary garlic.

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There is not much to do once your garlic is up and growing. The plants are tolerant of a wide range of weather conditions, but water if the weather is very dry. An early spring feed of seaweed or comfrey will help growth, but dont feed or over water in late spring, this could cause too much soft growth, just as the garlic bulbs are starting to mature. Just keep slightly moist. Weeding is most important, keep the garlic bed free of weeds, garlic does not like competition and some weeds carry diseses. The growing garlic can send up flower spikes or scapes, these wont harm the bulbs, but are best cut off to direct the energy into the bulbs. The scapes can be eaten and are lovely steamed or stir-fried.


In early to mid summer the garlic foliage should be starting to die back and go yellow and dry. When at least half of the leaves are yellow, lift the bulbs using a fork, dont pull them up or you might tear or damage the neck. This can cause problems when storing. Lay or hang the bulbs to dry in an airy place. When fully dry, clean off excess outer leaves, the softneck varieties can be strung up or platted, the hardneck varieties are usually trimmed leaving a short  stem and hung in net bags.


Although most true garlic and elephant garlic is grown from cloves, they both can produce seed and bulbils, these are small onion like baby bulbs. Both seed and bulbils can be sown and grown on to produce garlic bulbs, but can take 3-4 years growing before a decent sized bulb is produced.

Pests and Diseases

Although generally disease and pest free, Garlic can suffer from problems that also affect onions and leeks. The most common of these is leek rust. It is worse in prolonged wet weather when the damp air allows the rust spores to spread. So a clean open bed with good air flow will help. Keep clear of weeds, the weed groundsel often harbours rust spores. Onion white rot can also effect garlic so rotate your crops and dont grow garlic after onions or leeks.

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Related Garlic Plants

There are a number of other Alliums which have a garlic flavour. Wild Garlic or Ramsons [ Allium ursinum ], Garlic Chives [ Allium tuberosum ] and Crow Garlic [ Allium vineale ]. These are all clump forming perennials that can be grown from division or from seed.


There are lots of british suppliers of good seed garlic as the cloves for planting are called. The Isle of Wight has a very good reputation for suppyling cloves of excellent quality. There are so many varieties, that I would recomend you read through their catalogues and information or ask them to recommend a garlic for your soil type and locality. I would try both the softneck and hardneck varieties to see what grows best in your plot, and I would certainly try elephant garlic.

Eating Garlic

Garlic can be used in so many ways and recipes. We all know to add it to savory dishes and make garlic butter and garlic bread. Have you tried it roasted? Just cut a thin slice off the top of a garlic bulb and place in an oven proof dish, drizzle with olive oil and roast in the oven till soft. It is so sweet, lovely on crusty bread. Or try ‘wet’ garlic, using the growing bulbs when young, they are so tender, mild and juicy. When you have eaten your garlic, freshen your breath by chewing a stalk of parsley.

Helen Fowler
Born in Middlesbrough. Moved to live in rural North Yorkshire in late teens. Moved back to the town in my 30's to live near Stockton on Tees. Then after a divorce and a serious accident I moved back to rural North Yorkshire near Thirsk, where I live now. I am a passionate gardener, a keen amateur photograper, I love travel, music, anything artistic and I have a great love of nature and the natural world. I have gardened since my teens and I lived and worked on a farm for years. I have owned or have experience with most pets and domestic animals. I hope by sharing my own experiences and the personal knowledge I have gained over the years, to help and encourage others to gain the most from their gardening efforts.

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