Elephant garlic is an interesting perennial crop to consider growing in your garden. In this article, we will discuss what it is, why you should grow it, and how to grow it in your garden. We’ll cover all the important things you need to know in order to grow it successfully where you live. Read on to find out more about this fascinating plant.
What is Elephant Garlic?
Elephant garlic, scientific name Allium ampeloprasum, is, as the name suggests, a member of the allium family. This means that it is related to onions, leeks and garlic. However, unlike many other members of this plant family, it is not treated as an annual. Rather, it is a perennial plant, which can be placed into perennial polyculture planting schemes and will continue to grace your garden and produce food year after year.
Elephant garlic is a little like the regular leek with which you may be familiar. It has a tall stalk and flat leaves. However, it is even more like regular garlic, in that it has a similar flavour, and produces a bulb made up of cloves. The bulbs look like regular garlic bulbs except that, as the name may have led you to suspect, they are much larger in size.
The large bulbs of the elephant garlic are made up of large cloves in papery skin, surrounded by a number of smaller bulbils with hard shells. The cloves are used for culinary use, though as with garlic, they can also be used for propagation. The bulbils are often discarded, but these can also be planted.
The Growing Habits of Elephant Garlic
In order to understand elephant garlic, it is important to take a look at how it grows.
If you plant an internal clove from an elephant garlic bulb, it will, providing the growing season is long enough, form into a new bulb with cloves in the first year.
If you plant a bulbil, on the other hand, it will produce a non-flowering plant in the first year. The bulbil will grow, during this first year, into a small bulb that is essentially a single clove. If left in the ground, this will, in the following year, behave like the cloves from the original bulb. It will grow a bulb divided into multiple separate cloves, and produce a flowering head.
If you leave your elephant garlic alone, the flowering plants will survive for a number of years. They will spread as bulbils and split off underground, and form a clump, eventually with a number of flowering heads.
Harvesting some elephant garlic and leaving some undisturbed to multiply can bring a range of benefits in your garden, and ensure that you will have a stable supply for many years to come.
Why Grow Elephant Garlic in Your Garden?
There are plenty of reasons to buy some of these impressive bulbs to plant in your garden.
Elephant garlic has a garlic taste, but tends to be somewhat milder and so can be even more flexible and versatile as a kitchen ingredient.
But the taste, and application as a culinary ingredient, is not the only reason to grow this plant in your garden. Elephant garlic, when left to grow and flower in the garden, can have great ornamental appeal.
What is more, elephant garlic is also a great wildlife-friendly plant. It is a great addition to a perennial polyculture, where it can be of benefit in attracting certain beneficial wildlife, and repelling or distracting a range of pests.
When To Plant Elephant Garlic
In exactly the same way as regular garlic, elephant garlic is planted either in the spring, or in the fall for overwintering. If you enjoy a relatively temperate or mild winter when you live, or you can provide some form of winter cover, it is generally best to plant your elephant garlic in the fall. This will mean that when you plant them, these will have longer to mature. There is a better chance that the bulbs will divide rather than producing a single mono-bulb in the first year.
Where to Plant Elephant Garlic
Choosing the right spot for your elephant garlic is key to success. Ideally, you should find a location that provides the plant with its optimal growing conditions. Elephant garlic will like a moist yet free draining soil, with a neutral pH of between 6 and 7. Those who have struggled to grow regular garlic due to wet soil conditions may find that elephant garlic is a better fit for their garden. However, though it can tolerate wet soil conditions better than regular garlic, it will not thrive where there is waterlogging in winter.
It will prefer to grow in an area with full sun, but it can tolerate partial shade. It is best to find a relatively sheltered spot, to prevent wind damage. These plants can tolerate fairly high winds, but it is worth noting that they will not thrive in areas with maritime exposure.
Preparing Your Growing Area
Once you have chosen a suitable location for your elephant garlic, it is important to prepare the site well. It is important to top dress the soil in the growing area with a good quality organic compost to ensure good fertility. It is also important to make sure that the area is entirely free of weeds, since elephant garlic struggles where there is competition.
Planting Elephant Garlic
Planting elephant garlic follows much the same process as planting out regular garlic. The first stage, of course, is sourcing your bulbs. Once you have sourced the elephant garlic bulbs, you can separate these to retrieve the cloves and bulbils for replanting. It is a good idea to plant the bulbils as well as the cloves, so as to think ahead and increase your stock of the plants in future years. As mentioned above, however, plants growing from bulbils will not be ready to harvest in the first year. Instead, these should be left in the ground to mature. Be sure to mark where you have planted the bulbils so you do not harvest them too early by mistake.
- Make holes where you would like to plant your elephant garlic, large enough to accept the cloves. (Forcing them into the soil without making holes can damage them.) The holes should be a minimum of 20cm apart to give the plants the space they need to grow.
- Take your cloves (and bulbils) and plant each one at a depth of around 10cm. Make sure that they have the pointed end upwards and the root end facing down.
- Cover the holes with soil and water the cloves and bulbils in.
- Mulch the area with straw or other organic matter in order to protect the soil, protect roots from winter frost, conserve soil moisture and restrict weed growth.
Caring for Your Crop
It is important to continue to water regularly during dry spells, or if you are growing undercover and the plants are not exposed to natural rainfall. However, take care not to overwater, especially in the case of overwintering plants. Use rainwater where possible.
Remove any weeds that threaten to outcompete your elephant garlic as it grows. Take care to maintain good airflow between your plants, as overcrowding can increase the chances of pests and disease.
On plants that you wish to harvest for their bulbs, cut off the flowering stalks (or scapes, as they are sometimes called). Cutting off the scapes allows the plants to concentrate their efforts and resources on growing their bulbs. The good news is that these scapes are not waste. They can be harvested and used in your kitchen to make a pesto, in stir-fries or salads, or in a range of other recipes.
However, be sure to leave the flowering stalks on some of your plants in order to achieve the full benefits of these plants from an ecological perspective.
Harvesting Your Crop
Elephant garlic can be an impressive crop to share with others come harvest time!
Elephant garlic that was planted in the fall will generally be ready for harvest from around eight months after planting – the following summer. Elephant garlic planted in the spring can be harvested in as few as 90 days – though it is likely that, in most areas, the harvest from spring planted elephant garlic will be in the form of large single bulbs only.
Determining when to harvest elephant garlic is the same as determining when to harvest regular garlic varieties. Generally speaking, it is best to harvest your crop once most of the leaves on the plants have turned yellow or brownish, and begun to flop over to the ground.
You can gently remove the bulbs from the ground as and when they are required after this point. Interestingly, however, while regular garlic tends to rot if left unharvested for too long, elephant garlic can be left in the ground, more like leeks.
Storing & Using Your Crop
Leave garlic to cure and brush off the dirt before storing.
If you do not want to use up all your elephant garlic right away, you will have to cure it (let it dry in a cool, dark place) for a few weeks. When cured, and stored correctly, elephant garlic will keep for up to nine months.
You can use your crop as you would any regular garlic, in a huge range of recipes. Elephant garlic will, however, lends itself particularly well to being roasted. With its milder taste, it appeals even to those who are not particular garlic fans.
Fancy trying it for yourself? Why not grow some elephant garlic in your garden?
Elizabeth Waddington is a smallholder, permaculture designer and environmental consultant. When not designing food producing systems or advising growers around the world, she is to be found in her own garden. On her 1/3 of an acre patch of land she has a walled forest garden orchard (home to rescue chickens), a polyculture vegetable plot, a polytunnel, wildlife pond, wild woodland garden and more and is working every day towards greater self-sufficiency. She is passionate about sustainability and loves to inspire others about the wonderful things home gardeners can do for people and planet.