My grandfather would have started this column with the words "Let's take a leek," the kind of thing he would also say at the dinner table to get my grandmother's ire up. For a while there I thought leeks were pretty funny. Then I actually tried one and was hooked.
I am thinking about leeks because I happened to see that one of my favorite garden writers, Jessica Walliser of Pittsburgh (it's worth checking out her site and buying her books), told her readers it was time to start leek seeds, indoors of course, in anticipation of planting out in eight weeks. Lucky them, I thought. Here I am surrounded by more snow than Pittsburgh has probably seen, collectively over 50 years and I was really jealous. I love that city, know it to be a garden-crazy place and now I find out they can plant leeks outdoors in eight weeks!
Ah, but the experienced Alaska gardener does not judge things by today's sub-zero weather and incredible snow depth. She counts on her fingers, instead. And when I started to do the math I was more than pleased to see that right here in Southcentral Alaska, we are only eight weeks away from April 15, the day we can start to expect frost free nights. Since leeks can handle some really cold weather, this means I don't have to live in Pittsburgh to start leeks this weekend.
There is one caveat: What you will need — and I suspect the good folks of Pittsburgh are no different — is supplemental lighting. Leek seedlings are spindly enough under the best of lighting conditions. Under unsupplemented Alaska ones, they wouldn't stand a chance, never getting much thicker than hairs before they die off. Do not try this without lights.
And, you will need seed. You may have saved some from last year. Or, you can buy locally off a seed rack and even send away to a favorite catalog if you must (but hurry). There are all manner of different varieties and kinds to choose from. Basically, these can be divided into two groups: short season seed that mature into plants in 50 days (after transplanting outdoors) or long season varieties which can take 100 days or more. The latter can withstand some pretty heavy frosts. By the way, the days to maturity on most seed packets is from the time you transplant outdoors — not when you start the seed.
To plant, fill some wide pots (or use seed flats) with compost or organic seed starting mix and dampened it. Then sprinkle seeds on very lightly and cover ever so slightly with more media. No need to water again until the surface of the soil dries. The seedlings should germinate in five to eight days. Optimum temperature for leek seed germination is 77 degrees so a seed heat mat will help. You don't need one, however, as leeks will germinate, though less efficiently, in a wide range of temperatures.
Some Outside gardeners suggest staggering seed planting by a week or so to extend out the harvest. It is hard to say if this makes sense in short season locales, but you be the judge. Others might tell you that it is possible to plant outdoors a month before the last frost. But our soils are not usually even visible, never mind workable, in March. I haven't tried direct seeding, but would love to hear from someone who has had success.
In any case, when leek seedlings reach about 2 inches, you must prick them out and transplant them into individual containers. The idea is to get nice and tall, sturdy plantlets. Tall, in this instance, means 4 or more inches.
Leeks, just like everything else grown indoors, will need to be hardened off for a week before transplanting out. What a thrill, however, to get something into the ground as early as April 15, just like the folks in Pennsylvania.
Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar
The annual meeting of the Alaska Botanical Garden: March 1, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the BP Energy Center. Free to all, members or not. Get a recap of 2016 and learn what is coming up in 2017. This is always a great meeting of gardening minds and friends. Do attend and join if you have not done so already: www.alaskabg.org
Seeds to start: Celery, sweet peas — and leeks, of course!
Snow: Do you really need me to tell you it is heavy and will break branches? When it accumulates on tree limbs, knock it off with a broom if you can.