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Elephant Garlic: Super-Sized Alliums

Garlic is one of the most versatile alliums out there. There are thousands of culinary uses for garlic, and plenty of medicinal uses too. And with so many different cultivars to choose from, growing regular garlic just kind of seems passe. Instead, grow elephant garlic!

Despite its name, elephant garlic is more closely related to leeks than regular garlic. Because it’s not a “true garlic” it has a much milder flavor and slower bulb growth. Working with this perennial plant is so rewarding. Give them enough time and space, and they’ll provide multiple harvests in the years to come. 

What’s so amazing about elephant garlic is that just a single clove can yield up to 6 elephant garlic plants. With patience and the right conditions, you can garden these from elephant garlic bulbs you bought in the produce section at the store. Let’s discuss the ins and outs of elephant garlic care. 

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Quick Care Guide

Elephant garlic
Elephant garlic produces gigantic but mild cloves. Source: jeamac
Common Name(s)Elephant, giant, or French garlic
Scientific NameAllium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum
Days to Harvest90 days
LightFull sun
Water1 inch of water per week
SoilLoose, rich, well-draining
FertilizerHigh nitrogen every two weeks
PestsSlugs
DiseasesFusarium bulb rot

All About Elephant Garlic

Newly picked elephant garlic
Elephant garlic is more closely related to the leek than to garlic. Source: woodleywonderworks

This plant is known scientifically as Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum, and commonly as elephant garlic, giant garlic, and French garlic. The solid bulb is thought to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean. It was grown popularly in England in the 17th century and eventually made its way to the Pacific coast of the Americas when Balkan peoples made their way to Oregon in the 1800s. 

At first glance, everything about elephant garlic looks like regular garlic. What distinguishes the two is the elephant garlic bulb: it’s large and surrounded by multiple separate cloves (no more than 6), whereas regular garlic is composed only of these around a central stalk. Elephant garlic grows up to 9 inches in circumference too. While farmers grow regular garlic from seed, not so for elephant garlic. Generally smaller cloves are used to propagate the plant, which won’t flower or develop into mature elephant garlic plants until the second year at least. 

Much like regular garlic, elephant garlic has basically the same botanical structure. As the bulbs grow, the foliage begins to push through the top of the bulb planted in the ground. Once the bulb reaches the maturing stage, flowering heads concealed in a thin papery covering, called bracts, open into large compound flower spheres. These many flowering heads come in colors of pink to purple. The entire plant will grow 2 to 3 feet tall. 

Elephant garlic is prized for its use in food. Although it’s closely related to its regular cousin, it has a much milder taste in the way onions have a similar but more powerful profile than a leek. Often the whole bulb is roasted with olive oil, salt, pepper, and other seasonings to add to dishes. Cook it and spread it on bread, or deep fry sliced bulbs to make elephant garlic chips. 

People even eat the bulbs raw in salads. The leaves are also edible and work well as a last-minute addition to eggs, a salad, or soups. Anywhere chives would be used, you can use elephant garlic leaves. Overall, elephant garlic is regular garlic’s very laid-back cousin. And elephant garlic care is actually a little less fussy, too. 

Planting Elephant Garlic

Elephant garlic can be fall-planted garlic, or it can be planted in early spring. It loves cool weather. Choose an area of your garden with full sun and fertile, well-draining soil where bulbs have enough room to mature. Because the bulb is the majority of elephant garlic’s root end, you can definitely grow plants in containers if that works best for your situation. To plant elephant garlic, separate the bulbs from cloves. Then place them pointed end up in a hole in the ground or container about 6 inches deep. Space each clove about 1 foot apart. Then cover lightly with soil and water them in. 

Care

Multiple cloves
Elephant garlic cloves have a similar shape to regular garlic. Source: twistedstringknits

Once you plant these large cloves in your garden, there’s not much you need to do. So let’s talk about the essentials to get you started. 

Sun and Temperature

Elephant garlic prefers full sun, with at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. It is hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 9, at temperatures as low -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Although leaves may die away in these conditions, bulbs that have been properly mulched will do just fine. The same goes for high heat. As long as there is adequate mulch, the bulbs will survive. Note, however, that elephant garlic needs at least six weeks of temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit for bulbs to develop. It does not, however, need protection from heat or cold. In higher heat, though, every single large clove will flower more quickly. 

Water and Humidity

Water elephant garlic in the morning regularly after planting. Give your cloves at least 1 inch of water per week. Try not to overwater, as this leads to fungal pathogens that cause rot on bulb-bearing plants like elephant garlic. Overly wet conditions aren’t preferable. Allow the soil around the large bulb to dry out slightly between watering. 

Similarly, consistent high humidity above 50% over a few months will produce rot. In a cool spring or fall, when it rains continuously, don’t add any extra water to the process. When your plant has produced flowers and the leaves are yellow, stop watering. That means it’s almost time to harvest! 

Soil

Choose an area of ground that has loose, rich, fertile soil with a neutral pH. If you’re making your own soil mix, a basic potting soil amended with a hefty amount of well-rotted compost works just fine. Make sure the planting area has good drainage and a pH of 7. 

Fertilizing

As mentioned above, when you grow elephant garlic it won’t flower in the first year. This means it won’t produce until the second year at the earliest. So after the first year, replenish the soil nutrients by adding a layer of compost around the base of the plant. 

Fertilize elephant garlic every two weeks with a high nitrogen foliar feed (12-0-0 or 15-0-0 NPK) after foliage begins. As flowering heads fall over, stop fertilizing with high nitrogen feed, and apply some high phosphorus fertilizer in powder form. At this time, the plant’s energy moves from leaf to bulb production. Use a bulb food fertilizer with a 3-15-2 NPK. 

Pruning

Unless you have tons of dead or damaged leaves, it’s not necessary to prune until you begin harvesting elephant garlic. In the case of dead or damaged leaves, remove them as needed. 

Propagation

If you want to grow elephant garlic from your garden harvest, simply plant more large cloves in organic matter. You’ll have new plants with cloves surrounding a large bulb in about one year’s time. 

Harvesting and Storing

Freshly harvested elephant garlic
Once harvested, you’ll need to cure your garlic before storage. Source: Terrie Schweitzer

Now that we’ve covered elephant garlic care and planting, let’s talk about harvesting Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum.

Harvesting

As the bulbs flower and the foliage dies away, elephant garlic is almost ready to be harvested. Wait for the remaining yellow leaves to fall over, and you’ll know it’s time. Typically, elephant garlic is harvested with a small shovel or trowel. A border fork works just as well. Simply insert the tool outside the circumference of the bulb, and loosen it from the soil gently. Then remove the excess leaves to ½ inch above the bulb. 

After the garlic is harvested from your garden, remove the remaining soil on the bulb with a dry cloth. Use them right away or choose to cure each bulb. Raw elephant garlic is great roasted and spread on bread. You can also add seasonings to your spread. Each clove has a mild flavor, unlike the fuller flavor of regular garlic. Sort out any damaged bulbs. At this time, bulbs can be planted in the soil once again or stored for that purpose.

To cure the bulb, place it in a cool dry place with good air circulation. Each bulb will require at least 3 weeks at low humidity and up to 8 weeks in higher humidity. A small electric fan on low can help keep air circulating and cut down on humidity. Once the bulb has a hard shell, you know it’s time to enjoy that lovely flavor. 

Storing

After curing, store your harvest in a temperate dry place. If it gets too cold to plant in your garden at this time, you can save cloves for the following spring. Your dry harvest should keep for at least 10 months in a hanging basket or on a counter. Peeled cloves keep in the refrigerator for 1 month. The entire bulb can be frozen and kept in the freezer for an additional 6 to 8 months. Frozen paste keeps for 3 to 5 months. If dehydrated, it can store for 6 to 7 weeks. Dehydrated matter can be ground into powders and mixed with other seasonings to use in cooking. 

Troubleshooting

Elephant garlic flower
The flowers are like a large globe of blossoms. Source: Terrie Schweitzer

Elephant garlic prefers well-draining, fertile soil. Most of the problems people encounter with these plants stem from improperly planted and managed conditions. 

Growing Problems

If you plant these plants in an area with compacted, stodgy soil, they won’t develop into large enough bulbs. If you planted cloves too close to other plants or let weeds overtake them, the same will occur. You want to give each of the plants adequate space and protect them by pulling weeds as much as possible. These plants also don’t like a wet, cold spring or fall. If you water too much in a rainy portion of spring, they could develop rot. Plants that develop a dark spot on their bulbs are suffering from root rot. 

Pests

Most alliums don’t have issues with pests. The same goes here.

Slugs may eat the leaves of your plants, though, if they make their way there. Place a small Tupperware container with a small amount of beer in it to trap slugs. They’ll head first to the beer, and perish there rather than eating your plant. 

There are a number of organic controls for slugs, too. Copper deters them, so purchase a roll of copper tape and surround your plants with it to keep slugs out. There are also iron and phosphate heavy organic pesticides that will eliminate a slug infestation. Finally, organic slug and snail baits work well too!

Diseases

Fusarium root rot is a fungal disease caused by the pathogen Fusarium oxysporum sp. cepae that starts out somewhere at the base of your plant. It then spreads to leaves yellowing them as it progresses, eventually creating a dark spot on the bulb. At this point, a white fungus is visible on the plant. You may not notice the problem with your plants until harvest time. Unfortunately, the only way to prevent further spread to the rest of your garden is to remove the entire plant and dispose of it (do not compost), then solarize the remaining soil. Some mycorrhizal additives may prevent the appearance of Fusarium fungi in the soil.

Frequently Asked Questions

Gigantic cloves
Humongous cloves of garlic will be your reward. Source: jeffreyw

Q: Is elephant garlic the same as regular garlic?

A: No! It’s more closely related to leeks and has a much milder flavor. It’s also much larger. 

Q: How long does it take to grow elephant garlic?

A: From planting to harvest, it takes about 90 days.


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