Wild Garlic: How to forage it, and how to grow your own

If you’re new to foraging, wild garlic is the perfect place to start, says Mark Diacono.

While Spring sticks her nose out from under her winter blanket, my wife and I, and, if the promise of a cake proves convincing, our daughter, will go to the coastal forests in search of dampness, partial shade and the magic that lurks within. .

We may not be the only ones: there are often others with a basket, a sharp knife and a hopeful look after “their” wild garlic patch (bear’s garlic, also known as wild garlic). This annual pilgrimage is now of great importance: as one of the few food gatherings that we have been collecting for a long time as a family, it gives us optimism that perhaps winter will indeed be behind us soon.

If you’re new to foraging and perhaps a little nervous, start with wild garlic. Its wide green tongues are easy to recognize; although some plants (including lily-of-the-valley) are similar in appearance, none of them have the characteristic strong garlic scent. Bulbs, buds, and flowers are edible, but young leaves are the main crop.

Instead of uprooting the plant by cutting the leaves an inch or so above the ground, you allow the plant to survive and grow new leaves; we need a maximum of 15 minutes to cut a full basket. We take care to choose a site a few steps from the trail to avoid dog urine, but when I’m at home I always soak the leaves in the sink for a quarter of an hour or so to get rid of stray leaves and other forest debris. As with lettuce and lettuce leaves, this also conditions them, extending their shelf life. Dried, dried and packaged wild garlic can be stored for at least a week at the bottom of the refrigerator.

The leaves lose much of their bright, crisp flavor when overcooked: a handful, withered briefly into scrambled eggs, is rewarding once we’re back indoors, probably followed by pesto and wild garlic ravioli. I freeze a few handfuls, briefly blanched for later use. You can find buds and/or white flowers in the crop: both are very good in tempura or for adding a little punch and contrast to leafy salads.

Wild garlic will also thrive in your garden. There are a few plants that do so well in moist shade, especially providing amazing ground cover, but wild garlic will do well in sunnier spots and well-drained soil, though avoid places that are too dry. Keep in mind that the darker the place, the longer the harvest season, often stretching into early summer, and that once the summer heat crosses an invisible threshold, the leaves disappear back into the bulb, reappearing in the new year.

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Wild garlic is easy to grow from seeds or young plants. I usually advocate shortening the path from planting to eating, so in my own garden, and when designing and planting others, I almost always start with young plants. For those with more patience, sow the seeds undercover in March, keep the compost slightly moist, and germination should occur in one to two weeks. After four weeks, transplant to their final location, leaving 4 inches between plants. You can sow them right in May. Allow the plants not to harvest for the first year so they can establish by removing flower stalks as they seem to channel the plant’s energy into good development.

Once grown, wild garlic reaches 16-20 inches tall and gives you a few cuts in high season, from March to late May, with a week or two on each side, depending on location and weather. Over time, it forms dense colonies, propagating its underground bulbs. It can spread at a reasonable rate in favorable beech conditions, and while it occurs much more slowly – if at all – in your garden, you can always pick up and remove any bulbs that threaten to spread into unwanted territory.

You may wonder why grow wild garlic at all when there is so much of it in the wild. First, as much as I love foraging, having some on the doorstep to use in the shortest possible time is very good; secondly, in many parts of the country (for example, in the arid South-East), wild garlic grows little under natural conditions; and third, it could be the perfect answer if you want to populate a shady, damp spot with something tasty and perennial that will attract pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Mark Diacono grows edibles, both common and unusual, at Otter Farm in Devon (www.otterfarm.co.uk). His latest book is From Scratch: Ferment (Quadrille, £12.99).

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