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Friday, 23 May 2014

A lazy person's guide to growing leeks

It stands to reason that whenever anyone starts growing vegetables for the first time, they don't know much about what they are doing and need to seek advice and guidance. This may be from experienced gardening friends or books or even the internet. When I first started vegetable gardening, the internet had only just been invented and isn't what it is today. Instead I read books by sages on the subject such as Peter Seabrook, Dr D.G. Hessayon and Monty Don. There is no denying that between them they have a lot of experience and wisdom to pass on. However, with experience, you soon learn that some of what is written in books is just an ideal to be attained in some fantasy garden of perfection, tended lovingly by a dedicated team of passionate gardeners and not by someone for whom gardening is a hobby that has to fit in around the realistic demands of family life and who's soil is rubbish heavy clay.

Read any gardening book about how to grow any vegetable and it will say something like, "Prefers a well dug soil with a high organic content." Well, yes, don't we all! If only! But no, I have heavy clay which spends all winter sticky, has a brief window of actually not being too bad in the spring, before setting to something similar to concrete in the dry conditions of the summer. As if to prove my point, my girls have even fashioned pots out of it for their own amusement! Nonetheless, I do manage to grow masses of vegetables in it every year which just goes to prove that some things are possible even without ideal conditions.

One of my favourite vegetables to grow is the humble leek. They are an essential kitchen ingredient as far as I'm concerned, particularly through the winter months when they form the backbone of flavour in warming dishes such as casseroles and soup. They are a very hardy plant and will stand, without damage, in the ground throughout the winter regardless of the weather conditions.

Like every other vegetable, leeks claim to prefer the sort of beautiful soil Monty Don lovingly caresses every week on Gardeners' World. If you follow the instructions in the textbook for growing leeks then you will sow them inside in late winter and grow them on until the summer, by which time they should be the thickness of a pencil. Next you take every leek seedling, chop off some of its roots and most of its leaves, make a hole in the ground, drop it into it and water it, without back-filling the hole with soil. This seemingly brutal treatment is something that leeks apparently like. I have tried it and it does indeed work.

Despite sowing leek seeds inside every year during the February half-term, by summer my leek seedlings are never fatter than a large nail, let along a pencil. And, instead of this brutal planting treatment, I pull out a drill in the soil with a hoe and then neatly line the leek seedlings up along the edge of the soil. Next I use the hoe to gently push soil onto the leeks to cover them up. Then I pull the soil on the other side of the leeks to gently pull the leeks upright. This is followed by a thorough watering of the row of newly planted leeks. It is a good deal quicker and, you know what, the seedlings go on to form healthy, thick leek plants for harvesting during the winter.

Leeks that have overwintered and not been eaten have a biological drive to produce flowers in their second season. This does somewhat tend to render them useless in the kitchen because they turn bitter and develop a hard core once the flower stalk forms. However, the flowers that they produce are an absolute joy - big light purple pom poms that send bees into a frenzy of delight. Should you ever see a flower stalk developing on your leeks then I urge you to leave them be and enjoy the flowers and the insect activity they attract. Once they have flowered they then produce seeds which scatter nearby and soon form into little clumps of leeklets. It is now that you realise that they haven't read the bit in the textbooks about preferring a good soil as they are also quite capable of growing in a crack in tarmac should an opportunistic seed land in one.

So rather than faffing around mollycoddling leeks into life, it is perfectly possible to take a clump of these self-sown leeklets and just replant them into the nice, ordered straight rows that us gardeners delight in. You may not go onto to produce leeks fit for the show bench but they will certainly be fit for the pot and ultimately that is all that matters.

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