Leeks for showing and for the table

By Richard Wright

Published on Monday, September 12, 2016 - 11:40


Leeks for showing and for the table

John Hayden with his prize-winning leeks.

GARDENING I AM in recovery from a bad case of leek envy at the weekend at the IW Horticultural Association’s (IWHA) summer show.

Size isn't everything, as they say, but in the case of John Hayden’s specimens it is pretty important and mighty impressive.

Long and straight and beautifully unblemished, they are the result of a fair bit of hard work, dedication and tried and tested techniques repeated year on year.

John, from Northwood, is a vigorous 75 year old, who was rewarded for his effort with an IWHA silver medal for a pair of leeks which dwarfed all around them.

Now giant vegetable growers are somewhat reluctant about revealing their secret little ways and John would only attribute his annual successes to 'plenty of dung, greenhouse cultivation, choosing the right variety, keeping the leeks watered and choosing pips carefully’.

I grow my leeks from seed each year and I have to admit I did not know of the technique of taking 'pips’, or bulbils as they are known, from a mother plant.

They are pips off the old block, so to speak, because they are effectively cuttings from the mother leek, meaning they will be true to the parent while seed wouldn’t necessarily be.

John, of Hillis Corner, grows the showbench variety Pendle, which is definitely the leek of choice of those in the know and he creates his own pips because they don’t come cheap.

If you go to a specialist mail order nursery you are talking about £1.50 for each tiny plant.

He is already thinking about starting off the next generation in the race to produce the prizewinners of 2018 because it is a protracted process.

Pips are actually little leeks that grow from the seed head and the way of getting them to form is to keep exhibition leeks with the best characteristics of girth and length, parallel form and no bulbousness around the bottom.

Then the brutal process begins by trimming off the current year’s roots and cutting off the top of the leek, leaving about six inches, which can be re-planted in a pot.

Surplus foliage and stem is stripped back leaving a strip of flesh just around the old roots. It is here the new roots will form to sustain the plant until it is time to take the pips out of it.

That is a process that should take more than a year to properly complete, by stripping off excess foliage and holding the leek back from producing those important bulbils too early, keeping the plants well-watered but shady and cool, and potting the plants on as they get bigger.

In August, the seed head is cut off and that encourages the leek to produce the pips instead.

"Basically the leek thinks it is dying and the shock makes it produce pips from the new head," said John.

Cleanliness is important throughout the trimming process and knives can be washed in dilute household bleach.

Some growers even leave the poor little pips in dilute bleach for a few minutes to kill off any spores before planting and say they notice stronger rooting systems are produced as a result.

John will shortly be starting off 30 or 40 bulbils from last year’s exhibition leeks in pots before selecting the best to grow on in his greenhouse in an attempt to again take the showbench by storm next year. He will be starting the process for 2018 using this year’s showstoppers.

Show leeks are not for me — far too much faffing around — but leeks, as readers will know, have a definite place in my patch.

They are a vegetable which goes on giving at a time of year when there is not too much else to be had — through the dark days of winter right up until early spring when increased light and warmth encourages them to run to seed, which is their normal method of propagation.

Northern lights, from D. T. Brown, was one of my three varieties of choice this year and for the first time in many years I used plants supplied mail order, in addition to those grown from seed.

I chose to grow from seed the old standby Musselburgh and Hilari, a very early and quick to mature Swiss giant type.

Hilari is meant for summer and autumn harvest but, predictably, I was late and will see how it does over winter.

Northern lights on the other hand is a variety where the little leeks are popped in the ground in the summer for harvesting over winter, the traditional time for this versatile vegetable to find its way into stews or to be used as a steamed vegetable in stir-fries or whatever.

I am looking forward to seeing northern lights in all its glory.

It is promised this British-bred variety is a real stunner in the winter vegetable garden, the leaves changing from blue-green to an eye-catching deep purple during the winter months — eye-catching foliage as nice in a flower border as in the vegetable garden.

When they arrived as plug plants they were quite small, so I separated them and brought them on after popping them into 9ins pots of rich compost.

They are now out in rich ground, planted just before it rained, dropped into dibber holes and watered in after cutting off surplus leaf and root growth with a sharp, clean knife.

Trimming foliage stops them tipping over and rotting, and taking off some of the root stimulates growth.

They promise not to be as big as John’s monsters but they will taste better, I’ll bet.

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