Tough as a Glaswegian bouncer, hardy as an Orcadian crofter, the leek may be the national emblem of Wales but Scotland is its true spiritual home. Even the most popular leek for home growing, a heritage variety called ‘Musselburgh’, is Scottish!
The Musselburgh (often sold as Giant Musselburgh in the US) was developed around 1834 on the outskirts of Edinburgh, where harsh conditions on the Firth of Forth helped develop a sturdy, reliable variety which is more than capable of standing up to the cold breezes coming in off the North Sea. Perfect, then, for filling out a winter garden.
The Right Time to Sow Winter Leeks
I grow other hardy varieties of leek in addition to Musselburgh – variety is the spice of life and all that – but I like my winter leeks to be chunky, so every year I wrestle with the temptation to sow them extra-early in the hopes of producing drainpipe-sized leeks. Despite being able to shrug off frost and snow once mature, cold temperatures during a leek’s formative stages can be responsible for causing the plant to prematurely run to seed, or 'bolt'.
A bolted leek shooting up a pale pom-pom flower is highly ornamental, and is a useful nectar source for beneficial insects, but unfortunately it also means that the plant is past its prime. You can cut the flowering stalk out, but it goes right down to the base of the leek so it means you may lose a fair chunk of the edible stem. If you see a flower bud, dig up the plant straight away – the amount of stalk will be minimal, and if it hasn’t gone too hard the whole leek can still be cooked and eaten. Finely chop up any flower stalk, or blitz it into a soup.
For winter leeks, it’s best to delay sowing until at least early spring. These later sowings can be started off on a sunny windowsill, in a greenhouse or cold frame, or even directly into the soil if it’s warm enough. In late spring or early summer, when leeks are about pencil thickness, it’s time to harden off seedlings that were sown under protection and plant them out into rich, fertile soil.
To Blanch or Not to Blanch Leeks?
The traditional method of planting leeks is to make a hole with a dibber, drop the leek into the hole and then ‘puddle in’ by gently filling the hole with water. Over time the soil will gradually backfill around the leek and blanch the shank (stem), making it paler and more tender. The only problem is that soil inevitably finds its way between the layers of leaves, making washing leeks hard work. Some gardeners use toilet roll tubes to blanch the shank instead, but I found that the space between tube and leek quickly became a popular hidey-hole for slugs, so this experiment was soon abandoned!
Despite what many recipes say, the green leaves on leeks are perfectly edible, so leeks can be planted without puddling in unless you really need that pale shank. I use a bulb planter to plant my leeks, which enables me to secrete a cache of chicken manure pellets below the plants, in the same way that I plant shallots. The roots gradually suck up the nutrients from the pellets and feed the plants over the course of the growing season, and the loose soil allows the shanks to swell.
Spacing leeks at least 20cm (8in) each way will result in plumper plants, and also makes it easy to squeeze in a spot of intercropping. I like intercropping with lettuces as they fill the space between the upright leeks, helping to keep weeds down. As they’re short-lived plants they can be lifted before the leeks need the space to fatten up into.
It’s a good idea to mulch with compost between leeks to keep fertility up, weeds down, and moisture in. Leeks don’t need much additional watering unless it’s very dry. A liquid feed such as seaweed is beneficial a few times during the growing season.
Hardy Winter Leeks
Hardy leeks such as the Musselburgh will stand proudly in your vegetable garden over winter, even poking up through a thick blanket of snow, until needed in the kitchen.
Leeks go well with just about anything containing potatoes, eggs or cheese. Since leeks are so important in Scottish kitchens, it’s only natural that some of the most popular Scottish dishes feature these alluring alliums. Why not try leek and tattie or cock-a-leekie soups or, one of my personal favorites, a side dish of no-nonsense buttered leeks?