Friday, March 25, 2011

Sneaky Leeks

I've mentioned before how I love leeks.  That's me brandishing a few prized specimens in the top left of the banner collage.  Leeks take up real estate in the garden for a long time, but they are very unfussy plants, and they have the virtue of harvest-ability at that part of the year when it's very slim pickin's in the garden.  I've also just recently figured out how to store leeks for a short time by freezing them.  But the bottom line is they just taste wonderful.

So I'm starting an awful lot of them from seed this year, and I thought I'd share a little technique I've come up with.  It starts with the knowledge of how leeks behave.  That part of the leek which is below the surface of the soil will grow straight and white, and be the tenderest part of the leek.  Perhaps the sweetest part too.  In other words, you want to bury the seedling as deeply as feasible without completely covering it.  Leeks and potatoes are the only plants I know of that respond well to hilling.  But it's not really practical for me to plant leeks in a trench and then gradually fill it in over the season.  That technique works beautifully, if you want to pursue it.  I'd just rather not plant leeks in a single line and then tend to them that much.

Instead, I'm working on forcing my tiny seedlings to grow tall before I set them out.  At this stage, they are fairly easy to "hill."  Besides, leek seedlings are so floppy as they grow that they can use the support of repeated partial burials.  Some sources advise clipping the tops of the leek seedlings to avoid this flopping over, but that seems counterproductive to me.  I'd rather support the seedling than trim it.

My idea was to save several half-gallon milk cartons for seed starting.  Leek sprouts are so tiny that they can easily be crowded into a very small space.  So I use the carton in its upright position, with the top cut off and several drainage holes poked in the bottom.  I also cut most of the way down the corners of the carton, so that only a small portion of the carton will hold potting soil at first, and fold the sides down to allow plenty of light to reach the seedlings.  The waxy surface of the carton interior can be labeled in crayon or with a wax lumber pencil.

As the seedlings grow I progressively tape up a bit more of the sides of the carton, add more potting soil, and make another crease to keep the unfilled portion folded over to give the seedlings light.  Adding more soil to densely planted and flimsy plants is somewhat delicate work, so I use a spoon and dry potting soil that scatters easily.  If the potting soil bends any of the little seedlings as I fill, I just very gently pull them upright and the loose soil repositions itself around the stalks.  Only then do I water with a mister.  In this way I'm both supporting the seedlings, and encouraging them to grow long and tall well before it's time to put them in the ground.  When the sides of the carton are completely taped up and filled with potting soil, the seedlings will be more than 4" (10 cm)  tall. I'm betting that by the time it's warm enough to transplant them they'll be long enough to just plant quite deeply and leave it at that with no further hilling. I think the technique is sneaky.  It's a way of shifting most of the work needed to raise superior leeks into the relatively calm period before spring has properly arrived.

The picture above shows leek seedlings and their milk carton containers in several stages of development. Just planted seeds are on the right; those on the far left are the oldest.

P.S.  The homesteading books from the giveaway were mailed on Monday.  Winners, you should have them in your hot little hands very shortly if they haven't reached you already.  Thanks to all who entered.

Update: this technique didn't work out as hoped.


Anonymous said...

Please post back on this again after you've tried it. I'm really curious to see if your plan works.

Paula said...

Oh cool idea. I haven't started my leeks yet, so I'll try this and report back too.

Dea-chan said...

That looks awesome. I don't utilize leeks as well as I should.

Also, I just received my book! Yay!

Daisy said...

Neat idea! I do the trench thing but my poor little seedlings sometimes get buried if we get a heavy rain. I'm so going to try this!

Sandy said...

Kate, I have a gallon of clean whey in my fridge, which is whey (haha) more than I need. Would you like some? 610-216-4223. I'll be home most of the weekend.

Paula Adams Perez said...

Thanks for the tip! I've started some leeks for the first time, because of your good reports on them. (And the Tuscan kale seed you sent last year is doing well too!)

lizzie said...

Good idea. After harvesting leave a few in the ground -they produce beautiful purple allium flowers the next year and the bees go crazy for them. I have grown them with great sucess

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this - for a couple reasons - I love the idea and I'm glad to see what the seedlings look like. I just started my leeks this week. I'm not very good at starting seeds inside, so I've been nervous!

Kate said...

Jimmy, I have a fairly high confidence in the method, but will do!

Paula, yes, please let me know how it goes. I'm always interested in knowing how a given technique works out for others. Thanks!

Dea-chan, glad you got the books. Try some leeks; I think you'd like 'em.

Daisy, I did the trench thing for a while, but it meant not using the space alongside the trench because I was leaving the fill on either side and just kicking it in to fill gradually. I'm trying this method with a dibble this time.

Sandy, left you a message just a moment ago.

Paula, so glad to hear the kale seeds are up. Enjoy it!

lizzie, yes indeed, the flowers are very pretty.

Anisa, good luck with your leek seedlings. They're a bit delicate when small, but once they're big enough to put in the ground they're no trouble at all.

teekaroo said...

I've never grown leeks before. Can they survive a shorter growing season?

Unknown said...

Foster mummy gave me leeks yesterday, i look forward to growing them for the first time

Kate said...

teekaroo, most leeks need 75-90 days to maturity, which I think means the smallest you'd want to pick them. I plan for 110-120 days for nice big leeks that can overwinter in the garden. If you've got that, or something close to it, I'd say go for it. If you've got some row cover to help just a little with season extension, you're golden.

Frugal Queen, enjoy! It's always fun to have a new plant in the garden.

Dmarie said...

hey, this seems like as good a year to plant leeks for the first time as any! wish us luck here in Kentucky!

flowering tree said...

Great idea and thanks for the nice sharing to all people..
Thank you for sharing..

Kate said...

Dmarie, good luck in Kentucky!