The start of a new year is a good time to replenish the vegetable garden, although to most of us the thought of too much strenuous work in the days after Christmas is rather daunting. This season, weather broke a few days after Christmas though, and those who had made the effort to replant were repaid with a few days’ showers to help water the new plants in.
I was not so well organised. My gardening over the break consisted of harvesting various components of our festive fare, and helping my son and his partner exert a modicum of control over the wilderness that comprises their Wellington garden.
Still, the New Year’s weather might have dampened down enthusiasm for midnight frolics but it certainly left the garden spoil in great condition, and I was keen to get some leeks planted for the winter harvest. I had some free ground from the small area where we had grown a token crop of Christmas potatoes, and although it is not really ideal soil for growing leeks, I managed to turn it over and went out seeking some leek plants.
I am usually keen to buy some, nice punnet-grown plants for the garden, but I think members of the broad onion family do better if planted from open-ground grown seedlings, so instead of popping along to my garden centre I shuffled into the supermarket and got a bundle of field grown leeks –they were bigger and huskier than anything I have ever seen grown in a punnet.
The first step in growing leeks is to carefully choose where to plant them. They are not overly fussy about soil types but they do best on light soil that had been well manured for a previous crop, probably best a green leaved crop such as lettuce or cabbage. They are best not grown in a patch that has previously grown a crop of new potatoes, as the soil will be too loose and friable – leeks do far better on quite firm soil – so I made sure I trampled over the soil to firm it up before I planted out.
If you like long white stems on your leeks you are probably going to have to try a trick or two at planting time. Using a thick dibber or trowel, make some holes about 15 cm deep and about 20cm apart, making sure the holes are vertical. You then need to move the dibber or trowel from side to side so that the holes are slightly larger at the top and about 5 cm wide.
To prepare the plants, trim the roots until they are 2.5 cm long and also cut the tips off the leaves. The leeks should now be gently dropped into the holes, filling the holes with water. The water will wash enough soil over the base of the plant to allow it to become established. When you are cultivating the soil around the plants later you will slowly fill the holes up.
You will need to keep a close eye on the young plants once they are placed out as they need to be kept well watered for the first few weeks. Once they have settled in you could give a side dressing of general fertiliser, or perhaps a weak liquid fertiliser. You well need to keep the weeds down, of course, and keep the soil well aerated to allow any natural water to seep in, plus to make better use of the irrigation you apply.
Once the plants are growing well you can start to build up soils around the base of the plants, aiding the blanching that will return a larger proportion of the vegetable as the sweet and subtle flavoured part of the leek, rather than the coarser and stronger green portion.
When you harvest them is up to your taste. I am rather partial to baby leeks (I have a great recipe for fish fillet, herbs and baby leek casserole) so I pick some when they are still quite young. I will let some grow larger but I think they are probably best when about 3cm through, perhaps a little more. I am certainly no fan of those monsters you sometimes see at the vegetable shows, with stems about the thickness of a pick handle!