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Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Digging some of that chive talking

This week it has seemed like the seasons have finally got into synch a little.

After a wet and mild summer, followed by a damp and mild autumn, we have finally had some June-appropriate weather – a few days of bone-chilling frosts followed by a string of wet days. Maybe we can anticipate a more regular string of weather in the months ahead.

All the rain has had a harmful effect on soil moisture, and most of you will have noticed that vehicles travelling over grassed areas are leaving tracks behind. We must be careful when working the soil at this time of the year. Even walking over drenched soils can seriously compact them. I have a large plank in the woodshed that I use if I have to walk into the vegetable beds.

But there are some tasks to do. Yesterday was the winter solstice – we are back on track for lengthening days – and that means it is time for planting several members of the gigantic Allium family, especially garlic and shallots. Both are traditionally planted on the shortest day of the year, and then harvested on the longest one, just before Christmas.

Botanists are divided over the origin of garlic, as it seems to have been cultivated for so long, they cannot accurately determine exactly which species it derives from. It is almost certainly from the Middle East, where a few different related species can be found, all with the pungent flavour associated with garlic.

There are also several species found in Europe which have the characteristic smell. Christopher Lloyd, the great English garden writer, used to write about some of the members of the family cultivated in the flower garden, grown for their wonderful spherical flowers. He found it amusing that the species Allium neopolitanum, literally Naples garlic, should have sweetly scented flowers and no scent in the bulbs.

There are hundreds of different varieties of garlic, many originating in central Asia. China remains the hub of garlic cultivation, and many bulbs found in New Zealand supermarkets have come from there. However, these have been treated with a chemical to stop them from sprouting, so they are obviously of no use for planting in the garden.

Instead, find some New Zealand-grown bulbs, preferably the biggest you can, and then carefully separate the cloves. These should then be planted in soils with high organic content, and good fertility. The pH does not seem to be a factor. They can be planted reasonably close together – just allow the cloves room to expand into new bulbs. I think about 15 cm apart is plenty, but make sure you plant the cloves about 5 cm down into the soil as they are not strong rooting plants.

Funnily enough, it is not a crop that beginner gardeners think of, but garlic is very easy to grow and needs very little care apart from the occasional weeding. It is mostly disease free, so it does not need any cossetting.

I have grown elephant garlic in the past. This oddity is actually a very different form of leek, but it grows like garlic on steroids. It makes a large bulb with just five or six cloves. Very much milder than more typical garlics, it is otherwise similar and just as easy to cultivate. It also has the advantage of keeping well for a long period after harvest.

The other Allium that should be planted now is the shallot. This is usually grown from bulbs grown during the previous year but can also be propagated from seed – Kings Seeds and other specialists will have one or two varieties.

Shallots are botanically just a form of onion, but they have a much milder taste, and are also generally sweeter. Their cultivation is very similar to that of their cousin the garlic – detach cloves from the mother bulb, and plant out in rows. The tops should be kept a little above ground at planting, but apart from that they can be treated alike.

I am a great fan of another cousin – chives. These are the only Allium species to be found in both Europe and America and are extensively cultivated around the world. Although it forms clumps of bulbs over the summer and can be increased by division, it is probably easiest to raise it from seed sown early in spring. It bulks up quickly, and as new leaves are produced through the growing season it can be harvested continuously. The pretty flowers can be shredded and used the same as the leaves.

There is an Asian cousin to the chive, the “Chinese chive” – a completely different species with sweet-smelling flowers and mild garlic-tasting flat leaves. Unlike true chives, this one does not make bulbs, instead forming tubers at the base. It is easily grown from seed [it has seeded in my garden] or from division.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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