The Leek may be the
national emblem of Wales but its horticultural
heart lies in the north-eastern counties of England.
Here is the home of the pot leek – grown
by enthusiasts with loving care and secret potions
for competitions each year. The aim is to beat
the 9 ½ lb (4.75kg) record, but at home
your aim should be to produce ½ - 1lb (250-500g)
specimens for the kitchen – smaller but
tastier than the Northumbrian giants. Leeks are
the easiest member of the onion family to grow
– they will withstand the hardest winter,
are generally untroubled by pests and diseases,
and do not demand the same level of high fertility
as the onion. But some textbooks exaggerate their
ease by claiming that they are amongst the simplest
of vegetables to grow. Not true. They need transplanting,
careful earthing-up and occupy the land for a
long time. Still, an excellent crop for every
plot – the harvesting season lasts for six
months or more and the strong white roots break
up clay soil better than any spade. In the kitchen
the thick white ‘stem’ (more correctly
the shank of rolled leaves) has numerous uses.
Expected germination time: 14-18 days
Approximate number per ounce: 10,000
Expected yield from a 10ft row: 10lb (5kg)
Life expectancy of stored seed: 3 years.
Approximate time between sowing and lifting (Early
varieties): 30 weeks
Approximate time between sowing and lifting (Late
varieties): 45 weeks
Ease of cultivation: Not difficult, but occupies
the land for a long time.
· Leeks are less demanding than onions
and will grow in any reasonable soil provided
it is neither highly compacted not badly drained.
· The crop will be disappointing if the
land is starved of nutrients and humus. Thorough
digging in winter is required – add compost
or well-rotted manure if this was not done for
the previous crop.
· Choose a sunny spot for where the plants
will grow. Leave the soil rough after winter digging
and level the surface in the spring by raking
and treading. Incorporate a general fertilizer
into the surface about 1 week before planting.
Sowing and Planting
· Sow very thinly ½ in (1cm) deep
in rows that are 6in (15in) apart. Cover with
· Thin the seedlings so that they are 1
½ in (4cm) apart in the rows.
· The young leeks are ready for transplanting
when they are about 8in (20cm) high and as thick
as a pencil. Water the bed the day before lifting
if the weather is dry. Trim off the root ends
and leaf tips, then set out in rows 12in (30cm)
apart, leaving 6in (25cm) between the transplants.
· Make a 6in (15cm) deep hole with a dibber,
drop in the leek transplant and then gently fill
the hole with water to settle the roots. Do not
fill the hole with soil.
· For exhibiting in the autumn sow seed
under glass in late January or February and plant
outdoors during April.
· For ordinary kitchen use sow seed outdoors
in spring when the soil is workable and warm enough
to permit germination – for all but warm
and sheltered areas this means mid March or later.
Transplant the seedlings in June.
· For an April crop you can sow seed of
a Late variety in June and transplant in July.
Sowing time (under glass): Mid January to mid
February; transplant in late April.
Lifting time: November to mid April; can extend
from September to mid May.
Looking after the crop
· Hoe carefully to keep down weeds and
make sure that the plants are not short of water
during dry weather. Do not deliberately fill the
holes with soil.
· Blanch to increase the length of white
stem. Gently draw dry soil around the stems when
the plants are well developed. Do this in stages,
increasing the height a little at a time. On no
account allow soil to fall between the leaves
or grittiness will be the unpleasant result at
dinner time. Finish earthing-up in late October.
· Feeding will increase the thickness of
the stems. Late feeding, however, should be avoided
for plants which will overwinter in the garden
– late August is the time to stop.
· For culinary purposes do not aim to produce
giants – there is a reduction in flavour
as size increases.
· Begin lifting when the leeks are still
quite small – in this way you will ensure
a long harvesting period. Never try to wrench
the plant out of the soil – lift it gently
with a fork.
· Leeks can remain in the ground during
the winter months until they are required for
Early varieties (September, October, November)
These varieties are popular with exhibitors as
they can be sown under glass at the beginning
of the year and they will reach their maximum
size in time for the autumn show. Alternatively
they can be sown outdoors to provide long-stemmed
leeks for the kitchen before the end of the year.
The Lyon-Prizetaker: A great favourite for the
show bench over the years – long, thick
stems with dark green leaves to catch the judge’s
eye. Good for the kitchen – mild flavoured.
Early Market: a strain of the Autumn Mammoth variety
– noted for its earliness but not suitable
Walton Mammoth: Another Autumn Mammoth strain,
highly recommended for exhibition and kitchen
Marble Pillar: Many gardening books list this
variety as a good choice because of the long length
of stem and its ability to provide an autumn crop
which can be left in the ground in winter. Unfortunately
it is not listed in the popular catalogues.
Mid-season varieties (December, January, February)
These varieties mature during the winter months
and one of them has long been the number one choice
for the home gardener. They are of course all
winter hardy, but vary considerably in length
Musselburgh: This Scottish variety remains Britain’s
favourite home-grown leek – it is very hardy,
reliable and fine flavoured. The stems are thick
but not tall.
Snowstar: Similar to Musselburgh in general appearance
– a modern variety which the suppliers claim
is more likely to win a prize at the local show.
Argenta: Just what you would expect from a standard
mid-season variety – 5in (12cm) of white
stem, crisp flesh and a mild flavour. Matures
in November or December and stands up to winter
King Richard: Something new – a mid-season
variety which is significantly longer than the
traditional ones. Take up the challenge and see
if you can grow 1ft (30cm) long white stems.
Late varieties (February. March, April)
These varieties are perhaps the most useful of
all for kitchen use, maturing between late January
and early April when other vegetables are scarce.
Giant Winter-Catalina: The variety Giant Winter
has produced a number of impressive strains, and
Catalina is one of the best. Heavy and thick stems
are produced which can be left in the ground for
a considerable time.
Giant Winter-Royal Favourite: Like all Giant Winter
strains, late-maturing and very hardy. The stems
are large and the foliage is dark.
Yates Empire: Looks like Musselburgh with thick,
pure white stems but it will stand in the ground
quite happily until mid April.
Winter Crop: This variety has the reputation for
being the hardiest of all – it is the one
usually recommended for exposed northern sites.
Generally trouble free, but see Onion.