Leeks are a very versatile vegetable when it comes to the kitchen and are generally trouble-free and easy to grow. They are patient too – able to stay out in the garden for a long period until needed in the kitchen. Their tall blue-grey foliage looks great and can help shield carrots from carrot root fly by covering the juicy carrot’s aroma. Leeks have a milder, sweeter flavour and are less pungent than their close relative the onion. Using crushed leek leaves on insect bites can apparently relieve the pain of a sting.
Companions Carrot, celery, onion, lettuce.
Quantity 6 plants per person.
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Winter giant heirloom variety with great flavour. Can be sown close together for harvesting as tender baby leeks. If left to mature, Winter giant grows into straight, thick, tall stems with dark green foliage. Usually sown in summer and autumn to mature to full size in late winter and spring.
Carentan Giant heirloom variety with very tender slender white stems. Grows very well in areas with wet, freezing winters.
Lungo della Riviera heirloom variety that is often grown for its tall, slender baby leeks that are harvested when they are about a finger thick. Soil is mounded around stems to keep them white and tender. Sow successively to ensure prolonged harvest through summer and autumn.
Lyon a heritage variety original from England. Grows fairly easily with pure white stems that have a pleasant mild flavour.
When: Leeks thrive during the colder months of the year. There are two main planting times – Firstly August to November and then February to May.
A row or two of leeks will thrive in a sunny spot as well as partial shade. Plant alongside carrots to confuse carrot root fly and help your carrots get to the kitchen table in good shape.
Wild leeks naturally grow in woodland where soil is rich in organic material thanks to decomposing foliage. The organic material holds moisture but not for so long that soil becomes water-logged. In your garden you want to try and repeat these conditions so dig garden soil through to break down any lumps and add well-rotted compost or manure so that you end up with a sort of chocolate cake like mixture. If your soil is sticky then add fine pumice or coarse sand to improve drainage. You should be able to see soil interspersed with plenty of dark organic material that will both feed your leeks as well as holding moisture temporarily in the soil for thirsty roots. In cooler areas soil should not be too rich or plants may become overly susceptible to frost.
You can sow leek seeds into seed compost and grow your own seedlings. Fill a shallow seed growing tray or a few punnets with seed compost – about a fingertip deep - and scatter leek seeds. Apply a thin covering layer of seed compost and water with a rose fitting on your watering can. Wait till your seedlings are at least a good finger length in height and then plant into your garden.
If you aren’t into sowing your own leeks you can buy seedlings raised by someone else and get them straight into the garden.
You can plant leeks reasonably close together - say with a gap of around a little finger length between them – and then thin your young leeks for use in soups and pies so that you end up with large leeks ultimately growing with a gap of around a hand’s length between them. Your rows should be about the length of a spade’s blade apart. Gently lift your seedling leeks out of their tray or punnet and allow tap water to wash any compost from their roots. Using scissors, trim the foliage by about a half and then do the same to the roots. Next, using an ice block stick or an old butter knife, make small holes about a little finger length deep and pop a seedling into each one – all of the white part of the seedling should be below ground level. Water in so that roots make good contact with the soil but don’t bother trying to backfill your little holes with soil.
As your leeks start to grow keep them free from seedling weeds that will almost certainly appear as time passes. Keep soil moist by hand watering if conditions are dry and push earth up against stems so that the white, lower part remains covered and protected from the sun – try to avoid pushing soil too high or it will get in between the leaves and make cleaning a hassle when its time to cook. If you can lay your hands on sufficient quantity, cardboard toilet roll tubes can be dropped down onto individual seedlings as they start to thicken and this will do the same job as earthing up – looks quite cool too.
You can give your leeks a boost with liquid comfrey every week so that the stems swell and thicken.
Thrips sometimes attack the upper leaves but any damage is never normally more than superficial.
Pulling leeks can often cause them to snap, leaving the best bit in the ground. Use a small border fork and gently lift them from beneath their roots. If you decide to dig a whole bunch up at one time you can pop them into a box or bucket and cover the white, lower parts with soil. Store them like this for a while as you use them. Alternatively you can leave them in the ground for quite a while and lift as necessary.