Techniques

Leeks – You Can Grow That!

Being no stranger to growing plants in the Allium family – onions, scallions, garlic, chives, and many ornamentals – leeks had always scared me off. It certainly was not their flavor, which I love. It was the supposed extra care – hilling soil around the growing stalks – that caused me to leave leeks off my garden list of edibles. Boy was I wrong! Leeks are a great You Can Grow That! edible plant.

You Can Grow That! is a monthly blogging meme started by C.L. Fornari – she blogs at Coffee for Roses – to encourage anyone, novice or seasoned gardener, to stick their hands in the soil to grow something. Having grown plants for nearly 40 years, I’m still amazed by the power in each tiny seed.

I start seeds indoors, under lights, every spring. Each year, to expand my knowledge, I try growing at least one new plant or variety. Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) were my 2014 choice; the King Richard variety offered by Botanical Interests. I started two small flats in early March and grew them under lights until night temperatures in my zone 6 Connecticut garden remained above the hard freeze level. That’s when the leeks went into the mini-greenhouse in a protected, full-sun location. They moved to their summer home, a raised-bed, sometime in late May.

I planted the thin seedlings into a six-inch deep trench dug into the soil of the raised bed, then gently hilled soil up around the small transplants, leaving some of the green ends above soil level. After watching, watering, and waiting, the seedlings had grown enough to hill even more soil around the growing stalks. This is done to obtain the long white-flesh area – the edible part – at the base of each stalk. As the leeks grew, occasionally mounding more soil around each stalk took little time and effort. Once the soil was mounded to a total of 8 to 9 inches (remember, they were planted in 6-inch deep trenches), I added 2 inches of shredded straw to help keep soil moisture even and prevent weed growth.

For the rest of the growing season I pretty much ignored the leeks. By the time I harvested a couple in early autumn, they had grown quite large. Still, I left most in the ground for later harvest.

Leeks, harvested Thanksgiving week in sough-central Connecticut.

Leeks, harvested Thanksgiving week in south-central Connecticut.

Here’s how they looked when harvested right before Thanksgiving. The center leek is actually a bit more mature than recommended. The aim is to harvest before the ends begin to bulb.

There’s about a half-dozen more still in the raised bed, which is now covered as a mini hoop house for extra cold-weather protection. I expect to be harvesting leeks well into the winter.

These beauties were so easy to grow, and took up so little raised-bed real estate, that their now on my yearly edible plant list. And … they are delicious, imparting a mild oniony flavor to foods.

Northern gardeners can start leek seeds inside 8 to 10 weeks before the average last frost. After risk of a killing freeze passes, transplant leeks, 4-6 inches apart, into a trench at least 6 inches deep. Water regularly and mound soil up around growing plants as noted above. Gardeners in milder climates can sow leeks outdoors in spring for fall harvest or in late summer for harvesting the following spring.

For more growing suggestions, head to the You Can Grow That! website and read about other great edible and ornamental plants to grow. Then sit back and dream of all you could do in next year’s garden.

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Homegrown, home-processed horseradish

It’s horseradish harvest and process time in joene’s garden. Below is much of an older post on growing and preparing horseradish. The information is as relevant today as it was a year ago.

Horseradish is an easy to grow perennial root crop in my zone 6 gardens of south-central Connecticut – a plant-it-and-forget-it crop until autumn, when horseradish harvest time rolls around.

The key to growing horseradish is dedicating it to a sunny bed where the main roots can extend deeply into the soil and side roots can spread to eventually grow into new plants. I don’t advise planting OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA horseradish in an ornamental bed. Horseradish leaves grow two to three feet tall and are not necessarily showy over the entire growing season. They emerge a lovely green and quickly grow to near mature height. But the leaves are often munched by caterpillars and tend to brown during the heat of summer.

In my region, deer browse the leaves in late summer leaving unsightly bare stalks standing until harvest time. Because of this I advise planting horseradish in an inconspicuous spot. Don’t expect it to be an attractive eye-catcher. In my dedicated-to-edibles gardens, horseradish has it’s own bed. Because horseradish plants have not completely filled the bed, I fill bare spots with onions since these bulb crops don’t compete with deeper horseradish roots and easily survive among horseradish leaves. Also, my horseradish bed is unfenced and available to browsing deer which leave the onions alone and don’t browse horseradish leaves until late summer.

Freshly dug horseradish roots may not look like much, but they become one of our family's most sought after condiment.

Freshly dug horseradish roots may not look like much, but they become one of our family’s most sought after condiment.

But each autumn, even after deer browse the horseradish leaves to stalks, I harvest and process enough horseradish to meet my family’s needs.  Harvest time comes after a couple of good hard frosts, which help sweeten horseradish roots, but before the ground freezes. Harvest using a digging fork that allows deep penetration into the surrounding soil but does not cut the roots. Loosen the soil around the large tap-root, then pull the root out of the ground. The root will likely snap off, but that’s okay. Pieces left in the soil will become future horseradish plants. Once all good size roots are dug, level off the bed and replace any mulch (I use straw or salt hay). Remove any remaining leaves from the dug roots, and as much loose soil as possible, then place roots in a cardboard box, in an area protected from weather, to cure for a few days. Before processing, you want to give the exterior of the roots time to dry, but don’t let them dry out too much so that interior moisture is lost.

Peel horseradish roots into a small sink to prevent the peelings from scattering all over the kitchen.

Peel horseradish roots into a small sink to prevent the peelings from scattering all over the kitchen.

On processing day, brush as much remaining soil off as possible then, while gathering your tools – gloves for your hands, a sturdy vegetable brush, a vegetable peeler, cutting board, knife, and blender or food processor –  soak the roots in water. Gloved hands are a must when processing horseradish. An open window is also helpful since the pungent odor of fresh-cut roots will make your eyes water.

Cut the peeled white roots into 1/4 to 1/2 inch chunks, then place in a food processor bowl – with the cutting blade – with some water and white vinegar. Don’t completely cover the chunks, but give them an inch or so of liquid to sit in. As the chunks sit they gain pungency … you might want to keep the cover on the food processor bowl as much as possible. When all roots are cleaned and chunked, add white vinegar to about half way up the processor bowl and let the pieces sit about 15 minutes. If you have not opened a window yet, now is the time to do so. The pungent odor really gets strong once that food processor begins to work. Process the horseradish, adding white vinegar as needed, until no large chunks remain and the blend has a creamy texture.

Horseradish processed into a creamy texture.

Horseradish processed into a creamy texture.

You’ll shed tears during processing, but these will be well worth it once you taste the sweet, fresh flavor of homegrown and home-processed horseradish.

Warning: you may never settle for store-bought again.

Homegrown and home-processed horseradish is a sought-after condiment for our family holiday dinners. It’s perfect on turkey sandwiches!

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Joene Hendry

Marking bulb plantings

Autumn sends northern gardeners’ thoughts to spring when bulbs cheerily bloom and chase away a gardener’s winter doldrums. But when planting groups of spring-blooming bulbs, how do you mark their location?

When I first began planting bulbs, I had smaller gardens with fewer plantings making it easy to recall where I dug in each grouping. Through years of adding bulb plantings to my expanding gardens, it became harder to keep track of the exact location of each bulb group. Many springs I surprised myself by forgetting about the location of a previous autumn’s bulb planting. This is not a bad thing, but it’s not exactly good gardening practice. Then, after accidentally digging into a group of bulbs during one of my many perennial bed rearranging spurts, I began marking each bulb planting in some way.

The obvious labeling option is to stick a plant tag into the ground towards the rear of each grouping. I suppose this works for botanical gardens and/or really, really organized gardeners using special metal plant markers, but such markers become quite an investment. Less expensive wooden or plastic plant tags either decay or break and I’m just not a fan of the sight of plant tags sticking out of perennial beds during snow-less winter months. Besides, I’m not that organized!

This led to a different obvious marking method … rocks. In New England we ‘grow’ as many rocks as anything, so encircling each planting with rocks became my go-to method. Flat rocks nicely mark bulb plantings when bulb foliage is no longer visible. Rocks blend into summer-blooming plantings. Rocks are free and abundant. Plus it’s easy to expand a rock circle outward as bulb groupings expand in size.

Spring bulb planting marked by a circle of flat rocks.

Spring bulb planting marked by a circle of flat rocks.

My absolute favorite method, though, uses re-purposed metal bands from no longer usable barrels … yep, those half-barrels sold as planters. The circular bands that once held wooden barrel slats in shape are perfect bulb-planting markers in my gardens.

Spring bulb planting marked with a re-purposed metal barrel band.

Spring bulb planting marked with a re-purposed metal barrel band.

The bands clearly mark bulb plantings, stay in place and don’t break or decay. The bands virtually disappear from view as neighboring perennials grow and, since I like to use old garden tools as garden ornaments, the rusty, old barrel bands fit right into my garden design style.

And while on the subject of planting bulbs … for the most look-at-me impact, plant bulbs in groupings of 5 to 10 bulbs per planting hole. Please avoid planting a row of one bulb in one hole. They’ll end up looking like a bunch of schoolchildren lined up to head to the lunch room.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Joene Hendry