East, West ... home is best

03:42, Jul 05 2012
HOME GROWN: Midwinter is the time to plant garlic.

Yay, midwinter's here and that means things just go downhill (or is it up?) from here.

Even if it's only a minuscule difference, the days get "longer" and it's just six months till midsummer.

Midwinter also means it's time to plant your garlic. And if you ever needed a reason to grow your own rather then eat the imported stuff, take a look at the New Zealand Food Safety Authority survey of chemical residues and heavy metals found in imported garlic under their annual imported food monitoring programme (foodsafety.govt.nz/policy-law/food-monitoring-programmes).

While different products are surveyed annually, garlic imported from the United States and China was last surveyed in 2009. They found residues of fungicides, although none was above the maximum residue limit of 7mg/kg.

They also found residues of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, copper, mercury and lead but said "no detections were at levels of concern", although I personally struggle with any levels. The other issue I have with the anaemic-looking garlic from China is that, to meet biosecurity protocols, it must be fumigated with methyl bromide (see biosecurity.govt.nz/files/ihs/152-02.pdf).

And it seems, not surprisingly, some garlic is treated with sprout inhibitor to prevent regrowth. Now, call me a bit of a scaremonger, but I like to eat garlic not just for the aromatic flavour it imparts to my dishes, but also for any health benefit I might get. And intrinsic in that benefit is that it's still alive, if not kicking, when I crush it into my sauces, ragu, soups and salads.


I guess I'm looking for the benefit of all those enzymes and volatile sulphur compounds garlic is renowned for as well as the potent, uniquely garlic flavour. Garlic, along with onions and shallots, is a storage organ, in over-wintering mode until it hits the ground ready to grow again. Look how fast it sprouts away when you plant it. It sure is alive when you squeeze it through your garlic press. That is unless it's been rendered inert by some storage, processing and importation requirements.

Now, I know growers everywhere have to make a living. That's how our exporters make theirs, by sending produce overseas. And hard enough as it is to produce goods that not only meet biosecurity standards, but also satisfy consumer expectations, I think informed choice is always best.

Marlborough garlic grower John Murphy says that apart from white rot, an allium (onion family) specific soil-borne fungus, he doesn't encounter a lot of pests and diseases and has little need for pesticides and fungicides. Instead, he prefers to use crop rotation to keep things under control and recommends the practice for home growers as well. And, rather than use a sprout inhibitor on his garlic, he uses a specific drying techniques to ensure good keeping qualities and "on some of our crop [we] use potassium salt that helps prevent regrowth".

So, if you want to grow your own garlic, you need to use "seed" (given that garlic is grown from a vegetative clove, not a true seed) that has not been treated with sprout inhibitors, says Nelson organic grower and former technical director of BioGro Seagar Mason. He finds the main reason home-grower's garlic crops fail is usually because they have planted kitchen cloves that have most likely been treated with retardant.

Mr Mason is also cautious about eating garlic of unknown provenance, something supported by Horticulture New Zealand whose communications manager Leigh Catley says is why the organisation supports country of origin labelling.

That way, garlic from China would easily be identified, as would that grown in New Zealand, she says. Country of origin labelling is, Ms Catley explains, a controversial issue which the Government and other major political parties have not supported, citing potential costs and trade barriers, hence the campaign for COOL (Country Of Origin Labelling), endorsed by a wide range of New Zealand producers (see cool.org.nz).

Ms Catley says in the absence of labelling, people can easily recognise garlic imported from China because, in addition to the characteristic white colour, the roots are clipped off to meet biosecurity requirements.

And it's no good to grow.

Instead, using seed garlic and always planting the biggest cloves is the way to go, recommends Mr Mason.

That way you can improve on your crop each year.

However, he adds, while it's easy to meet most of the cultural requirements for growing good garlic, such as a sunny situation and well-drained soil, probably the biggest challenge is weed control.

Garlic doesn't like being crowded in and, because of the upright growth, the plants don't suppress competing weeds, so you have to do it for them, keeping your patch weed free. Now, we all know how easy it is to keep the garden weed-free at this time of year, but come mid-spring, when everything explodes in the hot, humid weather, it's hard to keep the weeds away.

Yet, that's exactly when your garlic needs to be kept weed-free and make the most of the spring season.

So, given my own meagre attempts to stay focused on the garlic crop in spring when everything else seems to demand my attention, I've come up with a cunning plan this year. To make my job a whole lot easier, I'm enlisting several layers of the Nelson Mail as mulch, with crosses cut in the paper at intervals along the rows where the garlic cloves are planted. Not only will the water be channelled to the garlic plants but also the paper will keep the soil moist and suppress weed growth.

And, when I tire of reading or looking at the pages, I'll cover them with an attractive layer of compost and wait to harvest the crop in January.

Perfect! This is definitely a trick for you to try at home.

JOBS TO DO It's not too late to plant rocket. Grow some in a pot or tub and keep it near the kitchen door so you can pick a few leaves at a time as a fresh herb substitute for winter garnishes, salads, soups and to pep up sandwiches. Plant also shallots, using the same Nelson Mail mulch method as for garlic. Plant some extra shallots to harvest the green tops as salad greens before your chives resprout in spring. Give your vege patch a dusting of lime if you haven't done it for a few years. You may be surprised at the results it brings next summer. But keep it to fallow ground only so as not to "burn" existing crops. Lime will lift the soil pH, making most common nutrients more readily available for plant uptake. Repot plants inside while it's down-time in the garden. If you use terracotta pots, remember to soak them in water for 24 hours between potting so as to remove the deposits of soluble salts seen as white markings on the pot surface. -