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Allium seeds are good to plant this time of year

| Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 9:05 p.m.
A young leek plant Jessica Walliser

Though it is still too early to start indoor sowings of tomatoes, eggplants, and other warm-season crops, it isn't too early to start the seeds of members of the allium family.

One of my earliest seed-starting efforts each season are leeks. They require a long growing season and, if you haven't grown leeks in your garden before, they are a real treat and are incredibly easy to grow. Their mild onion flavor is delicious, and they can be harvested very late in the season, long after many other vegetables have bit the dust.

Leek seeds should be started indoors under lights about six to eight weeks before they are planted outside in late March. Leeks can grow up to 24 inches tall and 2 inches around. The edible portion is the lower 6 to 10 inches of the stem, which is brilliant-white.

Unlike other members of the allium clan, leeks do not form a bulb; instead, we eat the large leaf base and the lower portion of the leaves. Leeks planted in the early spring are intended for fall harvests, though I leave some of my leeks in the ground with a 3-inch layer of straw mulch. I can harvest these all winter long and even well into the following spring. Leeks are fully hardy and, if mulched properly, they will be one of the spring's first pickings.

Once in the garden, leeks should be spaced about 4 inches apart. (If you can't start seeds of your own, transplants can be purchased from some seed catalogs or perhaps from your favorite local nursery.)

Once the seedlings reach the thickness of a pencil, they should be blanched. This process increases the length of the edible white portion by blocking out light and softening the tissue. It is done by simply mounding several inches of soil up around each plant and leaving it in place until harvest.

Some growers plant leek seedlings in a foot-deep trench. As they grow, the trench is gradually filled to the top over the course of several weeks, again blanching the stems and increasing the edible portion.

Harvested leeks need to be stored in a plastic bag in the fridge. They'll last about two weeks if stored properly. A smarter way to keep them for longer periods of time is to just allow them to stay in the ground and pull them as needed.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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