Emperor's new crop: the case for leeks

For first-time vegetable growers, leeks are an easy and tasty option. And if they're good enough for Nero...

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The Independent Online

The Roman emperor, Nero, liked leek soup. It might be the only good thing that can be said about him. Vichyssoise. Born not in France, but in the steamy cookhouses of 1st-century Rome. For first-time veg gardeners, leeks are a good choice. They are easy to grow and you don't even need a proper veg patch. The steel blue ribbons of foliage are surprisingly good set among tall waving heads of purple Verbena bonariensis. You could plant rows of leeks to pierce through a ferny blanket of the yellow daisy, Bidens aurea, or use them to paint stripes of blue across a golden patch of marigolds. If you don't eat them all, they'll provide great globular seedheads as good as any allium.

At this stage, it is too late to sow seed, but exactly the right time to plant young leeks on sale now (very cheaply) in bundles. The downside is that you have to accept some other grower's choice of variety, rather than your own. The advantage is that you will have cut out the most fiddly part of leek growing and can look forward to almost certain success with your crop. Once young leek plants are set out in their final homes (a job to be done as soon as possible), they will furnish the ground through to the following spring and need very little attention.

Leeks do best in rich, well-drained ground that has been liberally fed with manure or compost. If you want long, well-blanched stems, the leeks must go in deep holes and those are easier to make in friable ground than solid, brickmakers' clay. But in our first ever garden, where I took over a corner of a field to grow vegetables, I planted leeks in that sort of intractable stuff. And they grew very well. So did Brussels sprouts, which actually do better in stiff ground than in fine, fast-draining loam.

Since the leek has been for so long a staple food in Europe, it has evolved by selection to provide early, mid-season and late varieties. The early ones tend to be tall and thin, the late ones squat and fat. These squat ones are the pot leeks grown with such savage dedication by showmen who care more about bulk than flavour. 'King Richard', for instance, is an early variety that needs to be harvested before frost sets in, 'Autumn Mammoth' (strains such as 'Goliath and 'Toledo') matures by mid-autumn but is hardy enough to stand in the ground until late spring. The best-looking leek, though, is 'St Victor', with foliage of a very attractive blueish-grey.

So what do you have to do with this bundle of young leeks when you've got them? You take a dibber (a thickish stick with a pointed end) and make a series of holes 15cm (6in) deep and at least 15cm (6in) apart. If you are planting in rows, make them 30cm (12in) apart.

Drop a leek into each hole and then fill up the holes with water so that soil is washed over the roots of the leeks. Traditionally, leaves and roots were shortened before transplanting, and the old guys on the allotments round where I live still do this. I see a practical side to this (less leaf means less stress to the plant; less root means it will drop more easily into its hole), but I'm not sure it is strictly necessary.

Once watered in, leeks need very little extra attention. The fantastic amount of rain we've had in April, May and June has been a bonus for vegetable growers, even if water boards persist in calling it "the wrong kind of rain". Only in the driest of summers will the leeks need any extra watering. The key is to be generous with the initial watering in. Don't use a rose on the watering can. Pour the water into the holes straight from the spout and go on pouring till the water fills the hole at the top faster than it drains away at the bottom.

As for yield, you can expect (5kg) 10lbs of leeks from a 3m (10ft) row. You can lift them as you need them, though they are extremely difficult to extract when the ground is frozen hard. The stem snaps, leaving the best part of the leek in the earth. Where this is likely to be a problem, lift a supply before the ground freezes, trim the leaves (generally called flags) and wrap the leeks in newspaper to store in a cool place.

Rust is the only disease that is likely to attack your crop and, fortunately, breeders are now concentrating on producing cultivars such as 'Porvite' and 'Oarsman' that are resistant to the problem. Rust shows as orange spots and blotches on the leaves, but it's disfiguring rather than fatal. Worst affected are plants that have been overfed on high nitrogen fertilisers. You can burn leaves that are badly affected, but there is no cure.

Early July is also a good time to continue with successional sowings of vegetables such as turnips, salad crops, rocket, pak choi, endive, radish and summer spinach. At the beginning of the growing season, successional sowing seems a soothing proposition. Every two weeks you sow another short row of vegetables that are reasonably quick to mature and so provide yourself with a continually self-renewing supply of fresh produce.

That's the theory. But of course, in practice, it doesn't work. An unseasonably hot dry March meant that seed was reluctant to germinate. An unseasonably cold April and May meant that seed was still reluctant to germinate, though for different reasons. All seasons are unseasonable. We catch such conditions as we can and watch while some crops bolt and others take twice as long to mature as we expect.

But as a discipline, successional sowing is the right way forward. It's better to plan for six short rows of radish sown at fortnightly intervals than a single long row sown in March. The roots of radish quickly get woody and taste too hot for comfort. Unless you are specifically growing a crop for pods to pickle, young roots are what you want.

The same for turnips. They don't get hot, of course, but as they age, they turn into something much more like cattle food than the gourmet vegetable they can be when pulled young and braised with butter, honey and just a splash of water. Try 'Scarlet Queen' (Suffolk Herbs £1.45) or the new variety 'Sweetbell' (Thompson & Morgan 99p).