Her Outdoors: Leek Inquiry

Jane Merrick

We paid an early visit to Plot 35a on Sunday morning to take parts of a wooden playhouse I have bought for my daughter to play in while I get on with gardening. Tomorrow, with the help of a handyman (because we are hopeless at DIY and I want it to be safe), it will hopefully be built. But today, at 9am, we took the wood down to my plot to find it was already warm enough to sit in our t-shirts.

My allotment neighbour was already down there and looked like he’d been digging since daybreak. He harvested a load of red cabbages and donated four to us, very kindly. This is the sort of generosity that makes allotments so wonderful. Unfortunately I didn’t have anything to give him in return – the winter brassicas are either finished or, in the case of some of the broccoli, not quite ready, while there are crops that will not be harvested for weeks, like onions, garlic, early peas and broad beans, shallots, rhubarb. There is a small amount of chicory, chard and a couple of spring onions, but not enough to make a decent gift. When my first spring harvest comes, he will be first in line.

P1020811 300x225 Her Outdoors: Leek Inquiry

My harvest of chicory, chard and one spring onion isn't enough to repay my kind allotment neighbour

One veg I could have donated were some leeks – if it wasn’t for the allotment thief who took no fewer than 30 from my plot early last autumn. This thief cannot be a brilliant gardener because tearing them out of the soil meant they could not be planted again, but neither were they really ready for eating, unless he was planning a delicious baby leek soup.

Anyway, if they had stayed safe for the winter, I would have harvested the last ones around now. Leeks can take nearly an entire year from seed to crop – 45 weeks for some varieties. This is what makes them being stolen so frustrating, because of the time spent cultivating them.

My lack of harvest reminded me that it is a good time to start sowing leeks – some early varieties, that can be ready by early autumn, can be started off under cover in late winter. By March, they can be tentatively sown outdoors, though they come up as such slender things, like blades of grass, I like to start mine in root-trainers in a cold frame where I can keep an eye on them.

After a few hours with the girl on her scooter in the park, where it got as warm as 18C, and after lunch (which included red cabbage sauteed with apple, cider vinegar and onion) I got on with sowing the leeks. If you start them outdoors, you must make sure the soil is stone free, to avoid splitting, and not water-logged (which might be difficult after our winter). I use a seed compost, which is very fine and well-draining, in root-trainers. These encourage long roots and so are perfect for leeks.

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Leeks growing - sadly not in my plot after the thief struck

I sowed 10 each of 5 varieties (so many because, with the normal rate of attrition that happens through failure to germinate, some being eaten, and so on, I know really I will get about 30 to full size): ‘Atlanta’, a blue-green winter-cropping variety; ‘Porbella’, also blue-green and ready in autumn; ‘Blue Solaise’, whose leaves are blue to almost purple and can withstand staying in frozen ground all winter; ‘Lyon 2 Prizetaker’, which can be harvested as early as September and, as the name suggests, is a good size suitable for exhibitions; and ‘Musselburgh’, which is one of the most famous varieties, new to me this year and produces thick stems until late winter. All seeds are from DT Brown, Suttons or Kings Seeds.

When the seedlings become the size of a pencil, in height and thickness, they can be transplanted. This takes about eight weeks. More than ever, it is important to have well-prepared soil without stones and weeds and isn’t too dry, because leeks hate having to fight their roots through bad soil. With a trowel, make a hole for each leek that is 2 inches wide and 6 inches deep, place the pencil-sized seedlings in, but do not fill the hole with soil, just pour in water. This lets the leeks swell without soil getting into the stems and causing splitting. If you want them to be white all the way up to the top, use cardboard kitchen roll holders around the growing stems to blanche them – but as it would take me years to go through 50 kitchen rolls, I am not going to bother.

This season, I am going to protect them with netting to deter the thief, should he return, and maybe I will have a better harvest to repay my neighbours.

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