If you had to choose only one herb or vegetable to be marooned with on an island, it’s not difficult to predict which one you’d probably choose. Garlic, right? It’s both an herb and a vegetable, it’s loaded with health-promoting benefits, it enhances the flavor of almost any dish imaginable (so you can use it liberally every day) and it’s downright delicious. Hands down, garlic wins.
Garlic (Allium sativum) belongs to a whole tribe of plants (the Allium family) that is absolutely indispensable in the kitchen, from onions and scallions to chives and garlic chives, shallots and leeks. And there are many varieties of garlic available—from the top-setting rocambole to purple-skinned varieties, as well as other species such as the huge, mild elephant garlic. This little garden bed is designed to hold them all, with a fringe of some of the herbs that go particularly well with the robust flavors of this genus.
Garlic is most often planted in the fall, while many of its relatives go into the garden in late winter or early spring, and some, such as chives, are perennial. All these plants are easy to grow, they don’t take much garden space, and their strappy leaves provide a textural contrast when tucked into any herb or flower bed. But the beauty of growing them all together is the ease of harvest, particularly if this bed is conveniently close to the kitchen door so the chefs of the family have ready access.
Preparing and Planting Alliums
Garlic and onions need good drainage so they’re not sitting in heavy, damp soil. Choose a full-sun location for your allium bed. If you have heavy clay, spend some time preparing the bed, adding composted organic matter and aged manure and working that into the soil to lighten it—or consider raising the bed a bit to improve drainage in soggy soil. Do this work a month or so before your first hard freeze, usually September or October.
If you have sandy soil, compost helps here as well, as garlic and onions are fairly heavy feeders, and compost helps sandy soil retain nutrients to support their growth and development.
In the warmer zones of the United States, individual garlic cloves are usually planted an inch or two deep, with the pointy end up. In zones colder than about Zone 5, plant them a little deeper—say 4 inches down to help protect them through the winter. Garlic is planted in the fall because it can develop a larger head after a period of long cold; in the coldest climates, plant them in early spring. A good covering of mulch also helps.
Onions, shallots and leeks are usually planted in late winter or early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, and late cold snaps won’t bother them. Here in central Texas, where I live, that means early February. Chives and the annual garlic chives, as well as the society garlic (which is not an allium but shares its family, and earns its place in this garden with its lovely, fragrant flowers) can go into the ground in early spring, or just about any time through the growing season.
The same applies to the annual and perennial herbs that go around the edges of this allium garden and offer those classic flavor combinations; the hardier perennials such as thyme and oregano can be planted in the fall or spring.
The more tender herbs such as basil, rosemary and lemon verbena shouldn’t be planted until all danger of frost has passed. Or put them in containers so you can whisk them to a windowsill if cold weather threatens.
• Design Plans: Grow These Plants in your Garlic Garden
Growing and Harvesting
In the springtime, when you’re adding the onion sets and more tender herbs, fertilize those fall-planted garlic bulbs that are now sending up green shoots. Look for a balanced, organic liquid fertilizer, and fertilize regularly through the growing season every few weeks. The Mediterranean herbs on the edges won’t need much fertilizer in a well-prepared bed.
Keeping this bed well-weeded is important, as the weeds will compete for space, moisture and nutrients. The bed will require regular, consistent watering.
Later in the summer, when the green leaves begin to turn brown and fall over, you’re getting close to harvest time, so dig one up and check its progress. The bulb onions, which include the familiar red, white and yellow onions—both sweet and pungent varieties—are planted shallowly and will be forming bulbs near the surface, while the multiplying onions for scallions will be forming clumps that can be harvested fresh whenever needed.
Saving the Haul
One aspect of the alliums’ extreme usefulness is the shelf life of root crops such as garlic and onions when stored in a cool, dark spot in the pantry. Some varieties, such as elephant garlic and sweet Vidalia onions, don’t store as well or as long. When you’re planning this garden, think about your pantry and grow lots of keepers.
After you dig the garlic heads and stalks, shake off the dirt but leave on their papery skins and set them on a screen in a shady, airy spot to dry out slightly. When you’re ready, try your hand at braiding them, which is a traditional way to store garlic heads. Start the braid with three heads, laying them on the ground in front of you with the brown stalks pointing down, and braid them, adding more heads as the braid lengthens and tying them off when you’re done. Then hang on a hook in the pantry and cut heads from the bottom as needed.
One nifty, practical way to store bulb onions is in the legs cut from old, clean stockings. Put an onion bulb (slightly dried, the same way you let the garlic dry) in the toe of the stocking, and knot it. Then add more onions, tying a knot between each one. That way, the onions aren’t touching each other and still get air circulation to prevent them from molding; just cut them off one or two at a time just below each knot. The stocking stretches out from the weight of the onions, and you’ll be surprised how many fit.
Contributing Editor Kathleen Halloran lives in beautiful Austin, Texas.