Elephant Garlic needs a little understanding to be fully appreciated! Here, Garlic Farmer Colin Boswell gives some background into how this exceptional plant came into being, and explains how to grow your own Elephant Garlic bulbs in your garden at home.
What exactly is Elephant Garlic?
As its name suggests, Elephant Garlic is a large, vigorous and impressive leafy plant in the field, with a mild and less urgent need to enforce itself on the palate than its cousin garlic. This oversized bulb is in essence a fat-bottomed leek with garlic tendencies.
Elephant Garlic can be found growing in the wild as Babington's Leek" in coastal situations in the west of England and Ireland, notably around some Cornish surfing beaches. In the 1920s, it was chosen by Californian plant-raiser (and for some, genius), Luther Burbank of Santa Rosa, who, by careful selection, developed a leek that produced a garlic-flavoured bulb - with the potential to produce huge bulbs weighing over 2lb/1kg. Luther Burbank had many other horticultural successes, including the Burbank Russet potato: the mainstay of the potato chipping industry for many years. His other great commercial strength was as a marketeer. Much of the success of allium ampeloprasum" in Burbank's hands was his choice of a memorable name: Elephant Garlic. The name confirms the plant and all expectations for it; an assured reward for the gardener who chooses to plant it.
How do you grow Elephant Garlic?
When it comes to growing elephant garlic (which for us at The Garlic Farm Isle of Wight is in September), there is a real pleasure in planting cloves that are the size of most garlic bulbs, in rows, with three plants to the yard/meter, the Island sun on our backs and that glorious soft September light enhancing the beautiful landscape -still warm enough to make the soil feel welcoming to next year's Elephant Garlic crop.
Our garlic planting team is led by our Farm Manager, Feras, who has been with the Garlic Farm IOW for almost ten years. He has an arable team, several of whom learnt their horticultural skills working on their grandparents' farms, mostly in Romania. John, Adrian, Nicolae and Nico are the mainstay of our garlic growing team, and know more than many experts about the crop!
Does Elephant Garlic need any special nutrients to grow well?
Like onions, Elephant Garlic needs a small amount of nitrogen in the seedbed, with sufficient phosphate and potash to take the plant through the winter. Across the UK, growth usually starts at various points in February, early in the month in the south, later further north. 3oz/80gm of sulphate of potash and some nitrogen, worked into the soil around the plants, will provide essential nutrients and protective sulphur right up to harvest. The Garlic Farm's fertiliser pack contains all the essential nutrients required. Apply half in the soil at planting and half hoed in during February.
How to care for Elephant Garlic bulbs
Hoeing the soil around the plant every three weeks keeps it loose, friable and weed-free. In particular, remove any grasses as soon as they appear. We go through the crop up to five times with a tractor and steerage hoe, a person mounted on the back to fine adjust the hoe away from fragile garlic stems. We irrigate the crop, as required, never letting the soil dry out. Keeping the soil loose and aerated at this time can be equal to an inch of rain. Successful gardeners always have an eye and a thought for what is happening in the garden. Feras and his team have a continual watch over the crop. Due to the high light-intensity of the Isle of Wight, many crops can flourish weeks early, compared to those grown just across the Solent.
Before Elephant Garlic fully matures, it produces long stalks called scapes. These would naturally become the flower head of the plant but, as they draw energy and resources away from the bulb, we prune the stalks to allow the garlic bulb reach its maximum size. Happily, scapes are edible - and delicious! See our blog here to find out what you can do with scapes. They are especially tasty barbecued and accompanied by our thirst-quenching black garlic beer!
What can you do with Elephant Garlic bulbs?
Once your crop is ready to harvest, take a look at our Recipe pages to find some mouth-watering ideas for how to cook with elephant garlic: whole roasted elephant garlic bulbs are simple and delicious, pesto is always a winner, or try making Elephant Garlic crisps!
Whilst you'll find Elephant Garlic for sale in our Isle of Wight Garlic Farm shop or online here, we also sell elephant garlic seed for those keen gardeners who wish to plant their own.