This article is pretty much a collation of posts I wrote to do with propagating the good old fashioned leek. Propagating without collecting and germinating seed, techniques that are easy and quick to do and basically make the leek a permanent resident on your plot or in your back yard. I have done this as my part in the movement to get us all producing significant amounts of our own food without costing the earth. These techniques I have tested myself and work, but the inspiration for trying these techniques come from Medwyn’s of Anglesey and Leeks for the Lazy Gardener.
Normally with leeks you sow seed in, say, March in seed trays before putting them in dibbled holes in the ground in, say, June. You wait until they are big in, say, winter and eat them at your leisure. If they aren’t very big you will wait til spring when they will put on a renewed spurt of growth and are finally eaten before they send up a flower shoot in May or June. To a conventional gardener that flowering shoot spells the end of the road for your leek crop – eat them all or bung them on the compost heap. Either way the conventional gardener doesn’t get to see what happens next in the lifecycle of the leek.
It’s true to say that the bog standard leek we all know and love, and is found everywhere in greengrocers and supermarkets, is biennial – a term which means it grows through its first year into its second where it flowers and dies. What is not often known is that it leaves offsets (known as bulblets) behind, to live on when it dies. These bulblets then grow on to grow their own bulblets and die, and so on and so forth. So though the leek is biennial it does form a clump. Together with seed sowing and pips/grass/bulbils (I go into this in a minute) the leek, if left to its own devices, will become a permanent patch in your garden. As sustainable gardeners, permanency and perenniality is what we want, even if the plant is technically and conventionally a biennial.
We don’t always want to let nature do its own thing, as vegetable growers we want high yields. Left in a clump, leeks resemble really big chives. I separate them out and replant 3 or more inches apart, deeply, making a hole with a dibber, and giving them space to grow big just like an ordinary seed sown leek.
Pips and grass are regional British names for the same thing. Bulbils is the technical RHS name for pips or grass. I use the name pips because I am southern and I’m tickled by old-fashioned terminology – and I shall use the word pip from now on. When a leek flowers, you may for example be collecting seed for next year, you may notice that some of the flowers have green “grass” growing out of the flower head amongst the flowers. These “grass” are pips and are clones of the mother plant. If you don’t see any pips Medwyn (see link above) shaves off the flowers (leaving the flower head) and the leek reacts by growing lots of grass as an emergency response. I always seem to get about a third of the surface of my leek flower heads covered in pips, and as I’m in a hurry cos of a short growing season, I don’t shave the leek head. I carefully remove the pips – the whole thing green leaf and mini white bulb – and replant them in pots, just to get them started in safety. Then they go in the ground. Pips are reminiscent of really tiny onions. If you pulled off only greenery then you’ve left the alive bit on the flower head, try again. This technique has worked successfully for me for two years.
Competition growers hold the pips back for the next year so they will have the time to grow a big impressive specimen. I start them growing immediately – because I am interested in food not looks – but I don’t expect them to be big in autumn or winter. They put on the most size in the spring of the next year. If you have lots of pips you could grow them close together and treat them like spring onions.
This is one technique I haven’t actually tried, the collecting of seed and growing it. The collecting and growing of seed is a perfectly sustainable practice but I find it fiddly, prone to problems like damping off, is technically advanced and leads to a backyard full of modules, root trainers and plastic pots. In other words a pain. I have grown leeks from seed bought from a garden centre (I have a tray as insurance now) but I prefer the other two methods. I sow seed in compost trays in the middle of March in my lean-to mini greenhouse. I feed them with organic liquid feed so they are big enough to go in the ground in June.
Both techniques are types of cloning, your new leeks are genetically identical to the parent. This gives you the opportunity to select for characteristics. I have one leek that is particularly big and one that is medium sized but has pretty purple foliage. I shall collect pips and bulblets from those two, if I can, in preference over the others.
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