This year I’ve planted just under 1000 cloves of garlic in my main beds (progress shot above). There are 4 varieties in there: Ajo Roja, White Rocombole, Takahue, and my “Mongolian Red” (that isn’t remotely red). My big goal is to be able to sell it as seed garlic to local gardeners who want to grow better garlic. It’s taken years of growing and saving to get to this point.
But each year I also experiment with new varieties. You could say I’m ‘expanding the collection’. I begin by buying a small amount, and seeing how it grows. If it does well, it enters the ‘main collection’ and I start saving and growing it on a larger scale. This week, I planted 3 new experimental varieties in the ground for 2021.
Sourcing new garlic
Finding heritage garlic isn’t hard, but you do need to be quick, and know where (and when) to look. Private sellers typically offer their seed garlic from around March in a variety of places. I’ve found the Garlic gurus NZ Facebook group to be worth visiting Facebook for. But my favourite source is probably TradeMe.
It can go wrong from time to time (see “Mongolian Red”), but most of my varieties originated from TradeMe. This year I used it to source “Kakanui” garlic from Nelson. Not long after, I received an email from Blue Terrace Garlic in Otago offering “Spanish Red”, so I hopped on that as well.
I thought I was done. But then I walked into Mitre 10 one morning and found “Russian Red”: some of the tiniest bulbs I’ve ever seen, but something that isn’t Printanor on the market commercially, so worth a try.
This is supposed to be an old garlic for New Zealand, and one I’ve been eyeing for a few seasons. It originated from Nelson, which is relatively comparable to Northland in terms of climate. They’re a bit colder in the winter, and a bit wetter in the summer, but I’m hopeful it will do well.
The bulbs were about 40-50mm in diameter and I received 4 of them. On initial inspection, I found a couple of cloves that were deteriorating, but I removed them early and they stored well.
Kakanui is a soft-necked garlic with white outer skins and red streaks on the cloves. Cloves are a good size and come apart nicely with around 12 plantable cloves per bulb – which is a fantastic average. I ended up with 45 cloves to plant this winter, which means if they do well I might have a small amount to supply as early as 2023.
I was told this is different to the Ajo Roja I already grow, but it’s also a red-skinned hardneck garlic. Looking at the cloves, they are definitely a different colour to Ajo Roja which is a darker purple. As I purchased individual cloves rather than an entire bulb, I’ll have to wait for them to grow before I can compare flavour.
I managed to get my hands on 20 cloves from the seller’s largest grade (44mm+) bulbs. Given they’ve been separated from their main bulb for a couple of months now, I soaked these in some Seasol for a few hours before planting to try give them a boost. It’s a technique I’ve been seeing as I’ve been looking at other garlic suppliers globally, but I haven’t tried it before myself. Seemed like a good reason to give it a go.
These bulbs come from Dunedin, whose climate is considerably more chilly than my own. That will likely have some effect on how well they grow, but this is why I run these trials each year.
These were tiny bulbs. Only 2-3cm each. I got 4 bulbs in a pack, and each bulb had 5 or 6 decent sized cloves worth planting, giving me a total of 23 cloves and half a dozen to taste.
I don’t know where they come from – I don’t even know if they’re NZ-grown. All I know is I found a variety that isn’t Printanor or Elephant garlic available commercially in New Zealand. To make things even better, it’s a hard-necked variety: making it quite different to everything else on store shelves.
The colour and clove formation is very similar to my Ajo Roja, so I’m planning a taste test, but haven’t got to it yet. Aside from size, they look very similar, so I think taste may confirm whether they’re similar or quite different.
Planning and planting
When I receive a new variety, it does not get planted with the larger collection. There’s a few reasons for this, but quarantine is a big one. New varieties from random sources come with risks. It’s easy enough to remediate a garden bed over time, or retire it from alliums entirely. But devastating if something travelled to the several hundred plants I have growing for supply next season.
Another reason is I plant my experimental varieties later. I aim for around the shortest day. This year I used the moon calendar as well so they went in on June 30. Some varieties really care about when they go in. For me, Year One means they go in at the “traditional time”. If they make it to Year Two, I try them earlier. From there, I can adjust the dates to get the best harvest.
Finally, my garden soils are my best soils. I improve them between crops, adding minerals and nutrients based on an actual soil test. Loads of manure and compost have been added over years. The soil is rich with life. If the garlic is going to grow, it gets its best chance in the main garden.
As I recommended in a previous blog about planting garlic, I added blood and bone, lime, and worm castings to the bed I intended to plant a few weeks ago. This week I weeded out all the self-sown potatoes, installed my string-lines, and planted out my new varieties at 30cm x 20cm spacings.
And now, we wait
I’m more relaxed about my new varieties than I am about the main collection. I take care of them the same way, but it really is a case of ‘wait and see’. They might be rubbish, or they might be worth adding to the collection – I won’t know until I pull them out in 6 months.
That 6 months is anxiety-riddled for the main collection, but the risk of these ones failing is more part of the process, rather than a giant disaster. If the main beds fail, it sets me back years. But here I’m mostly hoping one of these does well. If two suck, that’s fine. If they all fail, then I’ll try again with something else next year. No big deal. I want to supply local gardeners with seed that will grow in our climate. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not worth spending more time on.
So now I have another bed to add to my weekly weeding tasks. And it’ll need compost and mulch in a couple of months. But mostly it’s wait-and-see.