LEEKS, those ancient stalwarts of the kitchen, are coming into their own now that summer succulents are fading with the waning sun. Like many winter vegetables, leeks only provide a good harvest when grown in the open ground. Summer and autumn baby leeks are the answer for small spaces. These small, thin versions have a more concentrated flavour and make a welcome addition to a stir fry.
Even when using a traditional plot for the more normal-sized leeks, you can enjoy baby leeks as a by-product. Whether you sow from seed or buy plants, you’ll always have a few more than you need. I use these to make a couple of little rows for each of the varieties I’m growing, and space them 2cm apart. By early August, these small leeks give me a bonus harvest.
As for the main crop, plant size depends on spacing. While I’d never contemplate the thought of producing exhibition leeks, I find the compost heap can get more from small leeks than me after I’ve finished trimming, so I plant 20-22cm apart for medium-sized ones.
Winter leeks are some crop, since you can harvest from August through to early April. After babies, I thin out some of the smaller, less robust specimens, leaving more breathing space for the rest, and I sow three varieties for succession. Early Pandoras race to a reasonable size quickly, while St Victor steadily swells, all ready for digging from February onwards.
The Great Leek Controversy rages over green versus white stems. The ancients always preferred the white part and this has continued right up to the present. The argument has persisted that white is sweet and tender while green is bitter and rank. While this may once have been true, it scarcely applies to modern cultivars, yet seed catalogues seem to rate their varieties according to the length of their peerless white stems.
Throughout the centuries, gardeners devised many arduous ways of appeasing this prejudice. Trenches, a good spit deep, were prepared for planting and soil was painstakingly raked round the growing stems to ensure blanching.
On a much lesser scale, a similar technique is advocated by the RHS. They advise you to gently draw up dry soil around the stem in stages. It must be challenging to tread carefully between fairly close-planted leeks to achieve this and to find dry soil in a properly watered leek bed.
I’ve come across some crazy suggestions. The gardener is urged to place a toilet roll inner round the leek. While this entails hoarding loo rolls for many months, it also provides a snug home for needy molluscs, as does the newspaper alternative. Admittedly, leeks will harbour less soil than by earthing up.
All this is still reinforced by culinary experts. The cook is urged to cut off all but the white section and reluctantly allowed to use a little of the pale green. The rest should be boiled up for stock or consigned to the compost heap.
As with so much else, people are encouraged to prefer the bland and sweet, yet there is good scientific data that shows the green part of the leaf is much better for you. In 2012, Nathalie Bernaert of Ghent University reported in Science Direct that she and her colleagues had looked at 30 cultivars of leeks.
They found that the green part of the plants had much higher levels of antioxidants than the white section, making this just one of many old assumptions that scientific discoveries have debunked.