GAR­DEN­ING

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

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