All about soil and sowing TRANSPLANT LEEK SEEDLINGS
Leeks used to be a big source of frustration for me. Every year I’d sow the seeds, painstakingly transplant all those blade-of-grassthick seedlings, thin dutifully and wait patiently... but for what? If I was lucky, I’d end up with clumps of what looked like chubby spring onions, but they never grew stalks thicker than an inch. So a few years ago I gave up sowing and started transplanting leek seedlings instead – and just look at the results.
I buy bulk bundles of seedlings by mail order from Awapuni Nurseries. You get at least 50 plants for $7.99, which isn’t as cheap as a packet of seed but I know that ultimately I’m going to harvest 50 big fat leeks for 16c each, compared to at least $2 each in the supermarket.
From seed to harvest, leeks take at least six months – and up to a year – to produce stalks with a generous girth. They’re slow starters but they hold well in winter soil and you don’t have to worry about them bolting to seed until the increasing day length triggers flowering around October/November. Even then, the sculptural ball-shaped flowers look neat so I’m never particularly sad to see the last stragglers go to seed.
If you want to sow leeks direct, or in trays, you need to start in late spring or early summer. Prepare your soil with general garden fertiliser and cultivate a sowing trench. Space the seeds at least 5cm apart and lightly cover; they will eventually need to be spaced at least 15cm apart but you can eat the thinnings later on as baby leeks. Or scatter seeds in a tray for pricking out when they’re
8-10cm tall. You can still sow leeks now but they won’t be ready to eat until mid-spring.
When transplanting leek seedlings, plant deeply. Use a bamboo stake or dibber to make 10cm deep holes, and drop a seedling into each one. Cover with soil and water in well. Keep the soil as moist as you can for the first 7-10 days after transplanting.
Check transplanted leeks every few days after planting as cats and birds most likely won’t spot the seedlings and have a habit of accidentally scratching them up.
Once your seedlings thicken up, you can mound up the soil around their stems for blanched white bases, but be careful not to mound it up too high or you’ll end up with soil embedded between the pale layers at harvest.
START STOCKPILING SOIL IMPROVERS
We all know that the best way to improve soil over time is to dig in bucket-, barrow- or truckloads of compost. But while most gardens produce heaps of green waste, it’s not as easy as it sounds to turn that into rich, black, crumbly compost.
At this time of the year it’s clear which parts of your garden have soil in need of improvement – the areas you can’t dig because the clay has turned to concrete, or the dusty soil that’s so dry it actually repels, rather than soaks up, water. Open, exposed soil always suffers more in summer than soil that’s partly shaded, mulched or even weedy!
While it’s still scorching hot, it’s too hard to sort your soil, but you can start building up autumn resources. Use your lawn mower as a mini-mulcher for green waste, layer grass clippings with dead leaves (evergreens drop them all year round), clear out your chook coop and stock up on cow and sheep manure. After heavy rain, this can all be dug straight into the soil, forked in lightly or buried in trenches to slowly break down.
DIG MAIN CROP SPUDS AFTER THEY DIE DOWN
Main crop potatoes for winter storage, such as ‘Agria’, ‘Nadine’ and ‘Rua’, can be dug once they have flowered and their leafy tops have died down completely. This takes anywhere from 100 to 140 days, depending on the variety. It’s important to wait for the tops to die down because, by then, the skins on the subterranean tubers will have fully hardened, so they will keep better. Eat any blemished tubers, and any you accidentally spear with a fork. If your plants succumb to blight, cut the tops off and dispose of them, then dig and eat the tubers as they won’t keep
SOW SWEDES FOR BABY VEG
Swedes grow biggest in the south... but in the north they grow the fastest, so you can still sow them direct now for a winter crop of sweet baby swedes. Sow ‘Champion Purple Top’ (pictured) and harvest at the tennis-ball This column is adapted from the weekly e-zine, get growing, from New Zealand Gardener magazine. For gardening advice delivered to your inbox every Friday, sign up for Get Growing at: getgrowing.co.nz stage.
Kale is dependable in autumn and winter. Transplant punnets or sow direct for baby salad kale. Kale never fails, is nutritious and frost-hardy. Sow Tuscan kale (cavolo nero), curly kale (pictured above) or ‘Red Russian’ (all from Kings Seeds) under netting to protect it from cabbage butterflies.