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Groundwork: In the leek midwinter


It's a wreath, it's also a wrap at Green Spring Gardens. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The vegetable garden is still looking pretty and festive at Green Spring Gardens, but even die-hard cultivators have been chased off by the cold. The snow, at least, forms an insulating blanket, although I imagine the lettuces are pretty bleak even with their protective covering. It is the moment to let cool-season vegetables struggle through the winter and set your sights on the next growing season, which comes around with alarming speed the older you get.

I was in the garden when it was still below freezing, and decided to take my leave when the northerly wind picked up and started howling through the trellis netting like a Siberian banshee.

Recipe Included

Both the carrots and the fava beans are in a protected hoop tunnel. The gardeners had cut the fava bean stalks in half (they were getting too high). Hopefully, they should bush out in the spring and have loads of flowers for a May harvest. The Chinese greens looked okay, but the mustard greens were definitely unhappy about the freezing weather.

The leeks, our featured veggie of the week, are pretty indestructible, especially as we find them here: mature and a good three inches across. Starting leeks from seed is a bit fiddly. The advantage is that you get to pick the variety, which is not an option when you plant store-bought seedlings in the spring (although that's a fine way to go as well).


Winter leeks just keep coming. But don't try to dig when the ground is frozen. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The gardeners at Green Spring this year grew three varieties. Tadorna is a late-season variety that keeps well in cold ground and, in Washington, will over-winter happily. Prizetaker is a variety with uncommonly tall stalks. Blue de Solaize is an heirloom French variety again selected for its wintering qualities.

The leeks were started from seed on Feb. 2, and the seedlings were transferred to their own pots a month later. They were planted out in the garden in early May, once the soil had warmed a little.

Leeks are a long-season crop, so they really like enriched soil that must drain. If you space them at six inches, they will grow larger than at the standard four inches, though you'll need more real estate at that spacing. I use a pencil to make the planting hole and then gently firm the soil around the baby leek, and soak them in with a gentle watering enriched with fish emulsion.


The lettuce bed with winter protection, before the storm. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Leeks are trouble-free and start coming into crop in October. You will want to harvest them before the spring becomes consistently warm, which will cause them to bolt. I have also started seed in late summer and put in transplants in September for a crop the following summer. Along with shallots, they're the easiest onion to grow and, to my palate, the most delicious.

Groundwork blogposts will resume in mid-January when we start thinking about what seeds to buy for the 2010 season. Thanks for following our progress through the year.

-- Adrian Higgins

From Cindy Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens:
Leek, Mushroom and Barley Soup

By Adrian Higgins  |  December 21, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, leeks, recipes  
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