Friday, 20 March 2009

Leeks for the Lazy Gardener

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Most home gardeners growing leeks start them from seed each year, or just buy transplants. Some smaller varieties are said to mature in 90 days, but the big inch-or-more wide ones like you'll find in the markets take almost 200 days to grow to that size. In order to get a pencil-sized leek seedling ready to set out in April, you'd have to start the seeds in January, tending and transplanting and keeping them under lights. That's too much work for me. I prefer to let my leeks start themselves.

Leeks, if left to themselves, are actually hardy multiplying perennials. Many members of the allium plant family are, and I take advantage of that fact so that we can eat home-grown onions year-round. I have a permanent allium bed around one corner of my garden. In that bed, I grow perennial clumps of bunching onions for Summer scallions (background right), plus clumps of walking onions (background left; sometimes called top-set or Egyptian) for the earliest Spring scallions (I've started eating those this week - I've written more about them over on my Firesign Farm blog). I always replant some to replace each of the clumps I use each year. The center part of that background bed is my leek nursery; this year's eating crop, set out last year and over-wintered, is in the foreground.

I started with a few of my biggest home-grown leeks years ago, transplanting a couple of the last plants left each year and then just letting them come back year after year until I need them. But if your local market has leeks with the root section still intact you can use those too. In fact, you can have your leek and plant it too. Just cut off the root section and bury it somewhere it can grow undisturbed for a year or more. The following year the root will send up a seed stalk, and also some little leeklets. Every year thereafter, if left undisturbed, the clump of leeklets will increase. I let the seed stalks grow too. They add a nice ornamental edging to that corner of the garden.

Early each Spring, I transplant a clump or two of the biggest set of leeklets into my regular garden, setting the plants in at least 6 - 8 inches deep (pruning by poultry, as seen here, not recommended - I need to clip some wings). In June, each transplant will send up a seed stalk, and I break off the flower bud on the top. By August a new leek plant has grown up alongside the broken stalk. By October, the remains of the seed stalk have dried up and are easily pulled out, leaving only a big beautiful leek plant. The leeks continue to grow, slowly, into at least December. They then spend the rest of the winter out in the garden - either buried in snow, or as is usually the case, exposed to the wind and below zero temperatures in the barren ground. The long-season leeks, the kind you want to be using for this type of over-winter growing anyway, are extremely hardy.

I might dig a few during the darkest days of winter, but usually that time of year I'm cooking with my globe onions from storage. But now, with my yellow onions almost gone, the leeks I transplanted a year ago are an especially welcome addition to our meals. Besides, their lighter and mellower flavor just seems to go better in Spring dishes. We'll eat fresh leeks for the next couple of months. By then, they'll be gone and it will be warm enough for the corn and bean plantings to rotate into that bed. The last couple of leeks get moved over to the nursery section to grow and multiply for future plantings. If you've got a little space for a permanent leek nursery, try this method and you'll never have to buy plants or contend with seeds again.