Great plump cloves, so satisfyingly oversized, so suited to their name: elephant garlic bulbs are comically big, its cloves up to 5cm wide, followed by strapping leaves and then, if allowed, a flower spike that tops 1.5m tall.
It’s not really garlic; Allium ampeloprasum grows like a large leek, but tastes like mild garlic. It’s perfect for roasting and baking. We have a native variety, Babington leek, Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonia that grows along the south coast, though the elephant garlic we grow in our garden probably has its origins in the eastern Mediterranean forms. Certainly, the cloves of the cultivated form grow far larger than any Babington leek I’ve produced.
Elephant garlic also seems more suited to wet conditions and less attacked by slugs. (Though the minute I say this, the great slug god blights me for those I have squished.) A single clove planted in autumn swells up into a larger clove, known as a monobulb. If the season is long enough, this will split into more cloves, just as garlic does. In late spring, the flower spike appears from the middle of the bulb. Remove this, as it diverts energy away from the bulb.
Elephant garlic likes full sun and moist conditions, though not waterlogging in winter. It won’t tolerate overcrowding from other plants and needs to be planted at least 20cm away from any neighbour. Traditionally, you plant in October or November, though it can be planted right up to February if conditions allow. The later you plant, the more likely it will just give you one large monobulb. These are a joy to cook with, so there’s something to be said for late planting.
If you harvest the monobulbs next June or July, then you are treating the plant as an annual and will need to save a number of cloves to replant (as long as the plants were healthy). However, if you leave the plants alone, you’ll find each clove becomes a bulb next year. And this method would perpetuate the plants forever – elephant garlic will grow happily as a perennial.
This would also affect the overall size of each clove, as the plants become congested. So carefully pull up the largest plants each year to eat, leaving those that remain room to swell. You’ll find the smaller plants are nearly always monobulbs, but given a bit more space these will swell up into large cloves the following year.
The top growth usually dies back by late August. You can lightly hoe the surface to remove weeds and then top dress with well-rotted garden compost, leaf mould or mulch in autumn. Just spread it out – don’t try to dig it in or you’ll disturb the bulbs. Once established, the only job truly necessary is to harvest every year.
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