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Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 5 - Leeks and other alliums

I made leek and potato soup for lunch today.

Having made chicken stock yesterday by boiling up the leftover chicken carcass from Sunday's roast dinner, it was just a matter of adding 150g of leeks, 100g of shallots, 300g of potatoes and 1 garlic clove. Once tender, they were blended into a thick and creamy soup and dished up with some freshly made bread.

I can't really describe how immensely satisfying it is to make something so tasty and wholesome from food waste (chicken carcass) and some tatty end of season stuff off the allotment (leeks, shallots and potatoes). In such uncertain times, it is particularly pleasing to make something out of nothing, or at least, that's how it feels.

Leeks are part of the allium family, along with onions, shallots, garlic, chives and spring onions. All of these are pretty easy to grow, don't suffer badly from pests and problems and keep very well for long periods. They are also essential in the kitchen for adding flavour so I would recommend growing some or all of them.

Ideally, onions should be grown from "sets" and planted in the autumn or early new year to overwinter. Sets are just small bulbs and they give a bit of a head start over starting from seed.  Fortunately, you can still get some onion sets in the ground now and they will be just fine. Or you could sow some onion seeds and just be happy with fairly small onions come the summer.

Onion sets can be sown easily by just pushing them into the surface of the soil. They should start to grow away pretty quickly, showing fresh green shoots. Sometimes birds pull them out of the ground, which can be annoying but they can be pushed back in. Once they are growing, they need very little attention other than to be kept free from weeds, and they should be ready to harvest by mid-July.

Should you have a bulb of garlic at home and wonder whether you can grow that, then the answer is yes with two conditions: 1) you put it into the fridge for a few days so that it gets the cold that it would normally have from winter that stimulates new growth, and 2) you divide it into its individual cloves and plant each one separately. Each clove will then go on to form a whole new bulb by the summer.

Similarly, single shallots when planted go on to grow into a new plant that will form 4 to 6 new shallots by mid summer.

Leeks and spring onions, in contrast, are always sown from seed and they are really slow growing. I usually like to sow some seeds by the middle of February, but this year I didn't manage that and only managed to sow some about a week ago but I think there will still be time to get a crop this year. They need to grow in containers until they have grown thick enough to cope with being planted out - this is usually about June/July time.

Once out in the garden, leeks just need a bit of weeding and they will keep on growing slowly right through into the winter. That, of course, is one of the wonderful things about leeks, they are a lovely winter vegetable. They can be harvested anytime from about November until the following March, so are useful to have in the garden when there isn't much else, which is why, of course, I was able to enjoy them for lunch today.

One final point about leeks, around this time of year they start to put out flower stalks. This means that it is important to harvest your leeks now before they flower otherwise they become inedible. However, should you not get round to it, they will go on to produce beautiful big purple pom pom flower heads that the bees go absolutely nuts about. Once the flowers have finished, the head will form seeds and the wind will distribute the seeds around your garden, leading to a whole new crop of leeks in the following year that you didn't even have to plant! Nature, sadly doesn't do a perfect job and the new leek crop will be planted too close together so will grow small, or will be in annoying or inappropriate places, even in cracks in your paving!

Anyway, for a reliable supply of useful kitchen ingredients by the summer and throughout the winter, I recommend planting some alliums now.

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