Saturday, August 28, 2010

An Essay on the Alliums porrum, sativum, and cepa L. var. aggregatum

A friend asked for information on growing leeks, garlic, and shallots. As she has often said, when I start talking about plants, you can't shut me up, so here is pretty much what I sent her as an answer:

Leek seed (A. porrum) - any good vegetable seed supplier like Pinetree (, Johnny's Selected Seeds, Stokes, etc., will have a couple of varieties. I like Pinetree because they sell small packets. Leek seeds don't keep their viability well so it's best to start with a fresh packet every year, and with a small packet, you only pay for what you'll use.

'Large American Flag' or 'Giant Musselburgh' are good, thick, over-wintering types. 'King Richard' is a more slender type for late summer and fall harvest. I haven't tried any of the new hybrid varieties. I'm not sure what the advantage of a hybrid leek might be - once they get going they are very tough - even if water is scarce, the main effect will be that they are smaller than they should be, and they are not bothered by insects - so it hasn't been worth it to me to pay more for hybrid seed.

Garlic and shallots - plant in late September or October! Yes, you can plant in spring "as soon as the ground can be worked," as the garden books say, but if you plant in the fall, they will be already rooted and growing by then.

I used to buy them at Territorial, but they now only sell one-pound lots that have gotten pretty expensive. I haven't bought garlic or shallots in a few years, since I save some from my harvest for planting, so I was pretty surprised to see the current prices. Try buying some at a farmers market - you'll know it's a variety that grows well in our climate. I'll do some looking online for other sources. Shallots from the grocery store will do, but I find they only make one or two large cloves instead of a nice cluster of 4-8 medium ones.

Planting is easy for both garlic and shallots. Have the soil enriched with compost, manure, and/or a sprinkle of chemical plant food. Plant cloves in a 6" x 6" grid, about 2" deep. Mulch well with salt marsh hay or use landscape fabric - a big help in keeping weeds down. If you use the landscape fabric, pin the fabric on the prepared soil, and punch each planting hole with the tip of a trowel as you go. In the spring you will have to gently guide the little shoots to the opening, because no matter what how careful you are in planting, they will come up an inch to the side. At least, that's what they do for me.

I usually grow about 36 plants each of garlic and shallots (that's figuring an average of 6 cloves per head for 6 heads), and even at my rate of garlic usage, I find that's enough to last until the following spring. One of my fellow community gardeners says medium-sized cloves, rather than the largest ones, yield the best plants. I may do a more rigorous study this year by planting different sizes of cloves and noting how they do.

Don't forget to cut the scapes (flowering stalks) of garlic as soon as you see them. They have a mild flavor and are terrific in stir fries or miso soup. If you miss some until they are old and tough, which you will be because they are sneaky, they're still good to flavor soup stock. Or even to put in a vase where they will twist around and create a je ne sais quoi, tres moderne effect.

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