THE versatility of the leek means you can eat them almost all-year round
Leeks have been grown in Europe and the Middle East for thousands of years. They grow to perfection in most parts of cool, temperate and even tropical Australia.
The plants are so versatile and easy to grow we can have tasty leeks on the table from our own gardens almost all year round.
Leeks are a valuable source of nutrition. They contain iron, calcium and vitamins C, E, A, B6, the B vitamin folate and niacin.
When it comes to growing them even in the coolest climates, leeks are amazing. The plants may actually freeze solid and still remain deliciously edible, or if still small, continue growing. However, once well-grown plants pass through mid-June as daylight hours change, they tend to bolt to seed around November unless harvested earlier.
July is a perfect time to sow leek seeds in containers - or plant tiny seedlings out in open ground. The reward is earlier crops in early summer.
These are the least demanding and probably the most pest and disease-resistant of all vegetables. Leeks tolerate a wide variety of soils, from sandy loams to clay, and always in full sun.
They dislike compacted soil so it pays to cultivate and loosen it deeply before planting seedlings. Mature plants are surprisingly tolerant of periods of winter waterlogging in cold soils. Unlike most other members of the onion tribe, they prefer a soil enriched with high nitrogen fertilisers.
Leeks are natural companions for root-crops such as beetroot and parsnips and are often seen growing between rows of carrots. They can also be grown with onions, garlic and shallots so the entire tribe can be rotated together.
Whether to sow seeds or plant seedlings depends on the time of the year. Seed is cheap, gives a bigger choice of varieties and germinates as low as 7C. In cool and temperate districts seed can be sown in punnets from July until early April. In the tropics, sow leek seeds from December to April.
The seedlings are transplanted into open ground at about 150mm tall. Punnet-raised seedlings are cheaply available from garden centres. If buying any this month, avoid big plants - the smallest and youngest are far better value and less likely to bolt to seed. Varieties include Jumbo (also called Elephant), Musselburgh, Welsh Flag & Sleekleek.
Here is the easy way to plant leek seedlings:
First dig a bucketful of old manure (poultry, horse, cow, sheep) into every square metre of bed.
Mix thoroughly and deeply into the soil. Rake surface to an even finish and if necessary, water deeply.
The easiest way to make holes in the soil is to use a garden fork - or a three-tine pitchfork. Just drive it in about 150mm deep and wiggle it about to widen the holes a little and keep doing this in a straight line. The best distance apart for the planting holes is about 150mm.
Lift bundles of leek seedlings and wash off any soil clinging to the white roots. Then trim them back hard so only a one-third of root-stubble remains attached.
Here's the easy bit. Just drop a leek seedling into every well-spaced hole and don't bother back-filling with soil. Up to two-thirds of each plant may be below the surrounding soil level when in each hole with just the top bit sticking out.
Then fill each hole to the brim with water. This is enough to wash soil around the roots to start the plants into growth. They will continue to do so without any care, apart from weeding.
Over the following couple of weeks, the holes gradually fill with soil. As the plants grow bigger, apply thick layers of straw or other soft mulching materials to suppress weeds. Mulching materials also keep leek shanks white, while preventing soil from falling between the leaves.
Leeks are harvested from 20mm to 75mm in diameter or more. Usually only the white shanks are eaten and the leaves are discarded. However leek leaves are also a rich source of nutrients and can be included with other ingredients when making soup stock. So, entire plants can be eaten, one way or another.