March 12, 2010

Early garden picks: Seeking leeks and set on rudbeckias

— I've been thinking about leeks lately. Nancy and I have never grown them and rarely eat them, except when visiting friends and occasionally out at restaurants.

But a couple of months ago Nancy suggested we should try them. We have had good luck with potatoes in recent years and a potato and leek soup sounds good. Plus leeks would go well in a plate of roasted root vegetables that we have had occasionally over the past few years.

We probably should have grown leeks in the past just for my heritage. I read somewhere that the Atwell name comes from Wales and leeks are tied to the Welsh culture. Back in 633 A.D. St. David got his Welsh countrymen to wear a leek in their caps to distinguish themselves from their Saxon foes, and the leek has been an emblem of Wales since the middle of the 16th century.

Besides, neither Brigit nor Maeve, our two nearby granddaughters, had any requests for this year's garden and the Massachusetts granddaughter, Alana, is only 19 months and had no requests, being willing to eat most of what is set before her.

So leeks will be the project for 2009.

If you are going to plant leeks by seed, you have to start them indoors between mid-February and early March. Our cellar vegetable-seedling operation doesn't get started that early because we usually take a March trip to warmer places. That means we are going to be dealing with leek seedlings, and the two options for seedlings seem to be King Richard and Lancelot.

Most of the catalogs I've read say to plant leeks after the normal first frost date, but they also say that they can stand cold weather. And most catalogs suggest digging a trench 6 to 8 inches deep, putting in the transplants and mounding the soil up around the leeks as they grow, keeping the edible parts of the leeks white. Johnny's Selected Seeds suggests using a dibble, which is a wooden or metal tool for making holes in the ground, and planting the leeks 6 inches deep and letting the rain collapse the soil around the leeks rather than backfilling. Then you mound them up. The dibble method sounds easier, but that means I have to find or make a dibble.

The plants should be 5 inches apart and the rows about 18 inches apart. And you can harvest your leeks anytime they are a half-inch in diameter or larger, but they can stay in the ground until the first frost.

Still in the vegetable garden, we have to rectify some mistakes this year. We grew Sugar Ann for our edible-pod pea last year, and they were a disaster. We like Sugar Snap because they produce peas for a month or longer. Sugar Ann went by in a week. Sugar Snap, unfortunately, needs a 6-foot fence, and our tallest fence is 4 feet, and then the vines start falling over and breaking.

I am tempted to try Cascadia, which grows only 32 inches, and I probably will. But I will also plant some Sugar Snap and work out a feasible 6-foot fence. Which means more carpentry.

Because our garden is so rocky, we never have good luck with carrots. But I am going to try Nelson, which I have never done before, and Mokum, which I have but which has a good reputation, in an area where I sift out all the rocks and amend the soil so the carrots will grow more deeply.

We also are going back to Sweet Million for our cherry tomato. We have been lured by catalog descriptions into trying other varieties, including Gardener's Delight, and have been disappointed. We have found at least one catalog that offers the seed.

Having done a column on the All-American Selections, I want to grow white eggplant (I haven't found Gretel in a catalog yet, but others might do) and the Honey Bear squash from the University of New Hampshire.

We had great success with watermelon last summer, and we will grow those again in 2009. But we also plant to grow a cantaloupe style of melon this summer. We don't know what kind yet.

Nancy wants more flowers this summer, and who wouldn't. Specifically, she is thinking about rudbeckias, because they did really well last summer. The most common rudbeckia is called black-eyed Susan, but they come in a wide variety of colors. She has found varieties called Cherry Brandy and Cherokee Sunset.

Now, all of these thoughts have come after spending just a couple of hours looking at fewer than a quarter of our catalogs. There are many long, cold catalog-looking days to come.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

tatwell@pressherald.com

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