Lowenfels: Time to start leeks is right now

Jeff Lowenfels

Sometimes you think to yourself, "Is it worth writing a column on so and so or not?"

This time the dilemma is whether to devote one to starting leeks from seed. I waited just a bit too long so this weekend is the very last call on planting seed if you want to have a decent leek crop this fall. Should I skip it and move on, or devote a column to them? I ask.

Since leeks are such a "hot' item with the foodies these days, I toss caution to the wind. However, don't delay this task if I pique your interest.

Leeks are really easy plants to start and to grow, and since they can be harvested young, they are always worth growing. Lucky for you who ignore the Alaskan gardening requirement of a set of supplemental lights, leeks can be started now without them. It will take two or three weeks for the seed to germinate and there will be plenty of light to sustain growth by then (thanks to the six minutes a day we are gaining).

Seed is a must. You can get them from catalog houses, but it's a bit late for that. Fortunately many nurseries carry seed. There are two kinds, summer leeks and winter leeks, which are hardier but take a much longer season in which to grow. Right now you want the summer varieties.

Plant seeds this weekend. I use a flat filled with good compost soil and scatter the seed as best I can. These get covered with about a quarter inch of compost. It doesn't really matter that seeds are close together, I am going to separate them out and transplant them individually as "bare-rooted" plants. It's just important that each seedling have a bit of space to grow untouched by another. Some folks simply put a single seed into cells of a cell pack.

By transplanting time, early May or so, the plants developed from seed should be about the thickness of a thin pencil, but since we are starting a bit late, they might not even get that big. Still they will be suitable for planting outdoors.

It helps to provide some bottom heat during germination, accomplished by using a seed heating mat. (These are great tools for starting seeds and, if you plan on living here a few years, a worthwhile and inexpensive investment, again available from your local nursery.) You need to keep the soil warm, around 70 degrees, until all the seeds have germinated. Then grow the plants in your flats or other containers at cool temperatures with nights at 55 degrees or thereabouts.

Come May, many of us will follow Eliot Coleman's advice and poke a 7-inch deep hole in the garden soil and drop in a plant. Over the season the hole will fill in and the plant will surely grow. Others will use the traditional method of burying the plant an inch deeper than when growing indoors.

Here is a great plant to put into continuers, big containers that is, as you can move them indoors in the fall and continue to grow them during the early winter months. It is even possible to grow them among annuals as the mature plants make interesting elements in displays.

Leeks are members of the onion family. They can be harvested for their bulbs when they are several months old, but you can eat the leaves anytime. Here is a vegetable that is better grown in your own garden then shipped to a store and sold to you. How can you go wrong? Visit a nursery and get growing, but do it this weekend.

Jeff Lowenfels' award winning Garden Party radio show will return at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 6, on KBYR AM-700. Call him on the air at 274-5297.

Garden calendar

Nursery Visits: Don't just look around. Buy. In three weeks people will be reporting daffodils in bloom and the geese will be back. What are you waiting for? Seeds, onion sets, even some plants if you have room. Fuchsia starts are fun to grow.

Garlic indoors now: Friend RoseMarie Nichols points out that your container grown, indoor garlic will do best if you pre-chill it for a few weeks. Now I am wondering what will happen if we put those containers outdoors now. The garlic should be able to take it and it will make bigger bulbs.

Flowers to start from seed: Salvia, pansies, lobelia, snapdragons, carnations, verbena

Vegetables to start from seed: Celery.

Tubers to start: Begonias and dahlias.

Corms: Glads should be started, a few at a time over the next three weeks.

Garden Lessons Learned Along the Way: 10 a.m. on March 30. Great gardener and good friend, Robbie Frankevich, has been designing, installing and managing gardens in Alaska for over 20 years. Get inspired by a great slide show and learn the some of the secrets of this gardener. Class is free, to register call 276-6016

Stored fuchsia and tuberous begonias: Take yours out of storage, carefully clean up and water. It's time to grow them back.

Stored Pelargoniums: Take yours out of bags and cut snips down from the tips to the base until you find green growth. Sometimes this doesn't work. If it does, go out and get new plants. These were freebies anyhow.

Stored spring flowering bulbs: Bring them all out and let them grow.

Jeff Lowenfels