Although we have been having a very mild winter thus far and temperatures have been very benign, we are rapidly approaching the shortest day. It is horrible leaving for work in the gloom and arriving home again in the dark, but the light will start flooding in with more power again and we will be back on the road to spring.
Those of you who are new to vegetable gardening are probably thinking there will not be too much to do at this time of the year – perhaps a bit of tidying up and some turning of the compost pile – but there are a couple of worthwhile crops that need to be planted at this time of the year , both members of the large onion tribe.
The first of these is garlic, the bulbs of which are now in your local garden centre. Their culinary use has increased tremendously over my lifetime – I can well remember a time when someone who used garlic in cooking was looked at askance, as being more than a little eccentric. That has all changed of course, and we use it more or less liberally in lots of cuisine.
Apparently it is an ancient vegetable, and is mentioned as being provided to the men building the pyramids. It has been used as a medicine for a long time too, and there are all sorts of alternative medicines that contain it.
I have not grown garlic for a few years, but this weekend I was working at weeding last year’s new garden, and it came to me that the soil is so friable at the moment, and just perfect for planting, so I raced down to my local nursery and got some garlic and shallots.
Garlic must be one of the easiest crops to raise. All you have to do is prise the bulb apart and plant the individual cloves, discarding the smallest ones to one side as the bigger cloves will grow bigger bulbs. Each clove needs to be planted about 5cm deep, and they should be about 15 cm apart. Ideally they should be in good fertile soil, well drained and in a very sunny location. My soil is a very compost-rich mix so I did not need to add any humus, but if your soil is thin it would pay to do so. A light sprinkling of general fertiliser would not go amiss either.
As long as you keep the weeds down there should not be too much trouble growing these plants – they seem to be almost disease free, and most insects seem to leave them alone as well. During the drier months you might want to keep an eye on them to make sure they are kept well enough watered, but apart from that, there is nothing much else to worry about.
Shallots are similarly easy to grow, and require somewhat similar growing conditions. Even though they are closely related to onions – having a similar but more complex, milder and sweeter flavour – they grow much more like garlic, forming a head with multiple cloves. At midwinter – the traditional time for planting both shallots and garlic – the heads are pulled apart and the bulbs planted in a similar manner to garlic, but don’t expect the same number of cloves as you will get from the garlic as there are not so many. This also explains why shallots are quite expensive to buy – all the more reason to grow your own.
There are a number of different types of shallot available for cooking with, but not all of them are grown in New Zealand – the reddish-browned skin type seems to be the most common.
Shallots ( I suspect this applies to garlic too) are sometimes imported into New Zealand after being treated with anti-sprout chemicals, which is fabulous for the cooks, but bad news for the gardener. Make sure you buy your bulbs from a reputable garden supplier.