A very cold spring: how I nearly lost next year’s Leek crop

I do rather like leeks. That’s why I grow lots of them; they’re the vegetable I most remember growing on our family allotment on Tyneside, the crop that regularly won Dad prizes in the Allotment Federation’s annual competition – tenderly nurtured by collective family effort, but credited to the (male) allotment holder! They also make scrumptious leek puddings and are essential ingredients in bacon broth. I also appreciate the outdoor larder a well-stocked bed of flagged leeks represents in winter.

winter leeks

I’m beginning to plant out the leek seedlings I germinated during late winter and early spring, but have had to review my insistence on germinating leek seed so early. I made elaborate arrangements for germination in early January using hot water bottles and bubble wrap; I then planted the resulting seedlings in a nursery bed in early February, just as the coldest of winter weather swept across the South Downs. The poor seedlings just sat there and sulked – at least they didn’t die on me, but they certainly didn’t prosper. I had assumed they were as hardy as the fully-grown ones we were harvesting, and made the mistake of leaving them uncovered and unprotected until March, when I eventually covered them with old windows, something I’ve never had to do during the last 15 years of growing. They perked up a bit, but only just. I sowed a 2nd lot of seeds in March and popped them into the seed bed, undercover, alongside the earlier ones, at the beginning of April. The cold had clearly set the early seedlings back and they were actually smaller than the March germinated seeds; as the weather warmed, the seedlings grew faster, and they all eventually caught up by May.

early leek seedlings-February '13

One thing I did learn about germinating Leek seed so early and subjecting them to cold at the wrong time in their growth cycle, is that it can confuse the plants into thinking they’re going through winter, which makes them produce flower spikes during their 1st summer or early autumn (they are biennial and normally flower during their 2nd summer). That happened to one variety of Leek I sowed early a couple of years ago, during the 1st of our recent cold winters. I couldn’t transplant the seedlings until mid July and they almost immediately started producing flower spikes during August, something I had attributed to the delay in planting out and the large size of the seedlings. I had sown Carentan, Musselborough, Pandora and Bleu De Solaise, but only the Carentan went to seed that summer, possibly indicating their susceptibility to bolt in unfavourable conditions.

It’s valuable understanding the germination and growth patterns for the crops you want to grow so you can work with them to get good crops as early and late in the year as is practical. But it’s also important to know when messing with sowing and planting dates can confuse the plant’s own seasonal growing cycle – this could be linked to temperature or day length sensitivity.  Work with the patterns, not against them. There was no advantage in rushing to sow early and I nearly lost those early seedlings during our intensely cold spring. The other lesson is the danger of repeating the same approaches to sowing and planting crops that worked in the past during different and milder winters and springs – that was my folly. I won’t even think to sow my leeks until March next year, then I’ll keep them covered until spring ‘properly’ arrives.

Leac-garths: on the centrality of Leeks

The labels given to everyday food crops seem unimportant, mundane, when, as gardeners, what we really want to know is how to grow them; yet, our own cultural histories are embedded in their naming and their use. Leeks have had a significant cultural presence in our lives, over time. They are synonymous with a northern British working class culture of prize leek cultivation; a regionally inflected cultural memory, of the man, his whippet and his leek patch, reflected in my childhood experiences of a family allotment on Tyneside, during the 60s and 70s. I remember winter meals of steamed leek pudding, with gravy and potatoes; of bacon broth, full of leeks, carrots, potato, split peas, all the veg nurtured by our collective labour: I sense a recipe developing, a cultural history stewing….

Historical evidence
It’s known that the Romans brought leeks to the British Isles along with onions, brassicas such as turnips and kale, lettuce, artichokes and Asparagus. Excavations at Fishbourne Palace in Sussex, have suggested a sophisticated understanding of cultivation techniques, transposed from Italy and adapted to the British climate.

We know leeks were grown during the medieval period because of their importance in the kitchen gardens of monasteries, in particular, records kept by Benedictine Monasteries. The Rule of St Benedict prescribed a well-ordered life with the day divided into specified activities, including working in the gardens, which were, of necessity, productive as they grew much of the food for the monastic community.

Another important source as evidence for cultivation of vegetables is found in an early 9th century plan for an idealised monastery, the St Gall Plan (815-20); this shows the layout of the different gardens needed by the monastic community. The gardens’ ground plan covers approximately 3 acres: south of the refectory, but within easy distance, is a large square vegetable garden, with 18 beds individually named, arranged in neat rows, onions, garlic, leeks and shallots allocated a bed each. Jenny Uglow points to the lack of records of British monastic life before the Conquest, but monastery culture would have been similar to that of Europe, so the St Gall plan is indicative of what might have been grown in British monastic gardens before 1066 (Uglow; 21).

Monastic kitchen gardens during the 10th century were mainly planted out with Alliums – leeks, onions and garlic – alongside peas, evidence of which was found at Bede’s Monastery at Jarrow, and an early ancestor of the broad bean, or ‘bene’. The medieval kitchen garden was known as the ‘curtilage’ or as the ‘leac-garth’ or leac-tun, from ‘leac’, an Anglo-Saxon root meaning plant or herb and garth, geard, zeard or tun (yard or enclosure) (Susan Campbell, 2005: 101). Maggie Campbell-Culver, in ‘The Origin of Plants’, explains how [l]eeks were so fundamental to the good life that kitchen gardens of all descriptions were often called leac-garths, in the same way as we sometimes cultivate our ‘cabbage patch’ (Campbell-Culver, 2001: 42).

Alexander Neckam, Augustinian abbot at Cirencester, teacher at the universities of Oxford and Paris, wrote his De Naturis Rerum during the late 1100s, in which he listed both existing plants in cultivation in Britain, alongside recent newcomers. His list of those plants that [t]he garden should be adorned with, included vegetables, alongside herbs and aromatic flowers, but dominated by alliums: There should also be planted beds with onions, leeks, garlick, pumpkins, and shallots (quoted in Uglow, 2004: 32). Piers Plowman’s ‘Vision’ (late 1300s) describes the harvest from his croft as peas, beans, leeks, parsley and shallots, alongside ‘chiboles [small onions] and chervils’ (Uglow, 2004: 49).

From Archaeological excavations of deserted medieval villages we have some idea of their layout and of the existence of early versions of the cottage garden:
At the back […] lay another enclosed garth, a long rectangular plot, stoutly protected against wandering horses, cattle, sheep and geese with ditches and wooden palings, and prickly hedges of thorn and holly. Inside the small patches were a jumble of herbs, vegetables and flowers […] villagers grew cabbage, kale, onions and garlic and leeks (by far the favourite, tastiest, most fragrant vegetable) (Uglow, 2004: 49).

Kitchen gardens were also important to large landowners, as they were needed to feed their servants, just as monastery gardens fed the monastic community. Alliums continued to be central to vegetable cultivation, as indicated by the seeds ordered for the royal palace at Rotherhithe in 1354, which included 12 pounds each of onion and leek seed (Uglow, 2004: 50).

My conclusion? That my love of leeks is not accidental, but culturally inspired, nurtured through my mother’s cooking, my desire to fill our allotment with as many varieties as I can muster, an attempt to reproduce the vegetable plantings of my childhood. Such an impossibility now inspires my first attempts at growing heritage leeks for seed saving, rediscovering old skills & vegetable varieties to invigorate my very own leac-garth.

Susan Campbell (2005) A History of Kitchen Gardening, Frances Lincoln; London.
Maggie Campbell-Culver (2001) The Origin of Plants, Headline Books; London.
Jenny Uglow (2004) A Little History of British Gardening, Chatto & Windus; London.

Germinating Leeks: hotwater bottles and bubblewrap.

Mid winter isn’t usually considered the time to sow seeds; freezing temperatures, snow laying on the South Downs in Sussex for over a week. And now rain, leaving the ground cold and saturated. Yesterday, on our way to Eastbourne we passed fields that were nothing but lakes, and, with the forecast for more rain, there’ll be little sign of those fields drying our soon.

leeks under snow [1]

Still, it’s possible to start early crops of hardy vegetable varieties undercover, indoors, which is what I’ve been attempting with leeks. Since 2009 I’ve experimented with different ways to start leek seedlings early, so that I have large enough plants for cropping during the summer.

Looking back through my gardening diary I read this:
Early March 2009: I used old window frames to cover a bed for early salads and sowed my own saved leek seed alongside. I’ve a note that germination was fairly quick; sown on the 1st, germinated by the 15th, transplanted into the 1st early potato bed by end of May, so following rotation and in good time as a follow-on crop after potatoes. I need to remember that Spring 2009 on the South Downs was warm during the day, but moderated by cold winds and low night temperatures.

2010: continued sowing undercover in the allotment at the end of March, again transplanting the seedlings at the end of May. But looking at my notes it’s clear that both years we didn’t really have any leeks cropping until early/mid autumn.

2011: after the New Moon of 4th January I sowed two trays of leeks (9th January). There was a full moon on the 19th just as the leeks showed signs of germination. I made a 2nd sowing of two varieties on 17th February, just before the next full moon on the 18th, and both had germinated by 22nd. The trays were kept on shelving next to a north facing French window, so, cool. They were wrapped in bubblewrap over the top of clear plastic lids, and covered with old towels.

2012: I was preoccupied during January and February, so reverted to my March/May sowing and transplanting cycle.

And now, this year (2013), I’ve attempted early sowing again. But, because temperatures have been so consistently low, I need to modify my sowing methods to encourage germination. I don’t have a heated propagator, so I’ve worked out an approach that, I think, mirrors the way a propagator works: a tray of modules with compost (half and half sieved leaf mould and our own green waste compost) sat on top of two hot water bottles overnight to raise the soil temperature before sowing seeds. After sowing, this routine continued for four nights, with the tray covered with a clear plastic lid, a sheet of bubble wrap, topped by a couple of old towels. The seeds were sown on the 3rd January and all four varieties had signs of germination (below) by the 11th. So, once germination was assured, I gradually moved the tray of seedlings, covered with a lid and bubble wrap, into the kitchen extension during the day, then back onto the shelves by the French doors at night, for about a week. The tray’s now in the extension without a lid until the seedlings are transplanted into a seedbed, probably by mid-February – I may cover them with fleece  for a week or so until they are established.

leek seedlings

Leek and onion seeds take from 14-18 days to germinate within a temperature range of 7-24o C, so I’ve effectively speeded up germination to eight days. Poor germination is either the result of cold compost/soil or old seed; it can also, early in the year, result from swings in temperature, so hot water bottles need consistently reheating each night until it’s obvious germination is going well. Once you have small seedlings, a bit like onion ‘grass’, about a couple of inches tall, they’re hardy enough to leave in a cool extension, or even a greenhouse, to slowly grow for a month before being transplanted into a nursery bed. The seedlings, below, are now standing up more strongly.

leek seedlings indoors

Sowing seeds challenges the timeframes within which we live our daily lives, thinking in seasons, not months; harvesting last year’s winter leek crop reminds me to sow next year’s summer crop. Yet, because leeks grow so slowly, there’s always the possibility of catching up by the end of spring.

Peas threaten to ‘walk’ & the leek seedlings get ahead of themselves.

I’ve done it again! I’ve got enthusiastic about getting an early start with my spring plantings by chitting early peas, broad beans & leeks, but…. I then had to get on with the rest of my life, like work & boring things like attempts at housework (hate it!). So, what’s happened? Remember those chitted peas I mentioned in an earlier post that didn’t get planted? Well, I’ve JUST got them into root trainers now-I feel like a neglectful parent who has been found forcing their child to eat cold porridge. Honestly, though,  how many of you (oh, there IS just you?) start a gardening task & don’t finish it quite how it ‘ought’ to be done?

Whatever the drawbacks of allowing your seeds to chit & then grow roots before you plant them out, they’re in their pots now all snuggled up in the kitchen extension & I will monitor how well or otherwise they do over the next few months. The Broad Beans have all emerged & are ready to go into the cold frame on the allotment before planting out, probably under fleece to help them maintain a head start.

'escaped' Piccolo Provenzale early peas

the leek seeds I sowed on 9th January are now over 1″ tall & just need popping in the cold frame for a couple of weeks before planting out into the seed bed to grow on before transplanting into the leek bed – I had them wrapped in bubble wrap by a cold French window (North facing) – it took them 10 days before the 1st seeds germinated. I’ve checked  the time/temperature guidelines for germination of  leek seeds: It can take up to 21 days to germinate leek & onion seeds, within the temperature range of 7-24ºC (45-75ºF); I don’t reckon the seedtray was warmer than @ 10ºC, but there was a full moon on 19th Jan & I have noted that sowing before a full moon does seem to affect germination rates (comments on your own experience of this, or scepticism equally welcome). What I welcome is a full seed tray of leek seedlings, in contrast to last year when they failed to germinate at all, probably too cold (I didn’t wrap them).

Pandora & Carentan Leek seedlings 27.1.11

Feeling happy at seed productivity & early start – just have to ensure nothing eats them once in the coldframe then the vegetable beds on the allotment – a dangerous time for seedlings!