Planting leeks, eating cicadas

Yes, we’re still planting leeks! Later than we intended, but the soil is nice and moist, thanks to the recent 1.6″ of rain. We’re growing 180′ each of King Richard and Lincoln, fast-growing fall leeks, 360′ of King Sieg and 1080′ of the wonderful winter-hardy Tadorna. We’ve just got about 400′ of Tadorna left to plant. Maybe tomorrow we’ll get finished.

Leek Seedlings earlier in spring. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Leek seedlings in spring 2012, our usual method.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Usually we grow our leek seedlings outdoors in a nursery bed. We reckoned to sow 24′ each of the fall leeks, 48′ of King Sieg and 144′ of Tadorna on 3/21, and repeat this on 4/27 as a back-up. March had so much rain we couldn’t sow outdoors, so we used open wood flats, sowing the rows close together. Our flats are 12″ by 24″. To get the same number of plants, we sowed 6 rows across and needed a total of 20 flats. Quite space-consuming! The greenhouse couldn’t contain them along with all the other starts we have at that time of year, so we put the freshly sowed flats directly in the cold frames. Our logic was that the coldframe would be at least as warm as the conditions they would have had in the nursery bed. This worked well. There was coldframe congestion, which would have been even harder if we hadn’t been losing so many flats of broccoli to various beasts!

Leek seedlings. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Leek seedlings.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

On 4/27 we were able to make the second sowing in the outdoor nursery bed. The strange part of the tale is that we don’t seem to need them! Using flats has given us a much better survival rate than the nursery bed used to (sometimes it’s a challenge dealing with the weeds that pop up and outgrow the slow leeks.) We even seem to have had too many plants in the twenty flats. I’m strongly considering switching over to deliberate use of flats next year. I think we could even sow fewer flats (reducing the coldframe congestion). A disaster has produced a better method! Our, our creativity when faced with a disaster has produced a better method.

With our “new” method, we still put the seedlings in small buckets of water to make the roots stick together for easier planting.

Here’s my description from Sustainable Market Farming (c) Pam Dawling and New Society Publishers:

The ideal size for transplanting is between a pencil lead and a pencil in thickness. We plant at 6″ (15 cm) spacing, with four rows to a 48″ (1.2 m) bed. People wanting really huge leeks use wider spacings. Leeks can also be planted in clumps of four to six, either at 10–12″ (25–30 cm) in-row spacing for easier hoeing or at 6″ (15 cm) for smaller bunching leeks. We use a special planting technique for our bare root transplants, in order to develop long white shanks, which are prized more than the equally edible green parts. A similar technique can be used for seedlings from flats or plugs. We find it efficient to divide the crew up and specialize in one part of the job.

Chapter 52, Leek diagram

First, if the soil is dry, water it well, preferably more than an hour ahead. Then one person makes parallel V-shaped furrows, 3″ (8 cm) deep, along the bed. Next, a couple of people make holes 6″ (15 cm) apart in the furrows. Tools for this job include hoe handles, purpose-bought “dibbles” or dibblers, or ones homemade from broken digging fork handles, with the end sharpened to a point. The tool needs to have a diameter of 1½–2″ (4–5 cm). The depth of the holes is determined by the height of the transplants, and is likely to need to be 3″ (8 cm) or more. If the holes cave in, you need to water the soil more before proceeding. Meanwhile another person digs up some of the transplants from the nursery bed and transfers them to a small bucket containing an inch or so of water. We make useful little buckets from one-gallon (four-liter) plastic jugs with the top cut off. A rope handle knotted into holes at the top of the new bucket makes it easy to carry. Resist any temptation to trim either the roots or the tops of the leeks.

To transplant, take a leek, shake it free from its neighbors and decide whether to plant it. Discard the ones thinner than pencil leads. If the plant is a good size and looks healthy, twirl it as you lower it into the hole to prevent the roots folding back on the plant and pointing at the sky — they need to grow downwards. This works best if the roots are still wet and muddy from the water bucket. Bobbing the plant up and down as you settle it in the hole will help a transplant that has slightly bunched roots. If at first you don’t succeed, remove the plant from the hole, dip it back in the water and try again. Soon you will develop this quirky planting skill, and will be able to move along the row at a good clip. Ideally the tops of the leaves will poke out of the furrow, not more.Get the depth of the hole-making adjusted to suit the prevailing plant height. This creates the depth for growing a long white shank. Surprising as it may sound, it is not necessary or desirable to fill the holes with soil (you don’t want to bury the seedlings). The soil fills in naturally as the plants become tall enough to survive the depth.

Next someone gently waters each hole, either from a low-pressure hose, watering can or using an overhead sprinkler, once everyone else is out of range. The goal is to water the plant roots, adding only a little soil to each hole. The shelter of the hole helps the plant get over the transplant shock, and because leeks have slender tough leaves, they do not lose a lot of water by transpiration. This means that transplanting in quite hot weather is possible, as is transplanting in the mornings.

Onto a completely different subject: the 17-year cicadas. I heard a radio interview and read an article in a local paper, The Hook, about Jackson Landers the Charlottesville author of Eating Aliens, with whom I shared the platform at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March. He spoke about eating the cicadas (not his usual quarry, because these are native insects, not aliens). He’s also on YouTube. He inspired me to try one (given that we only get the chance once every 17 years). I ate it straight up, after rinsing. I chose one that looked recently dead. It wasn’t unpleasant – a mild flavor and a creamy texture. I did wish I’d removed the wings and legs first. I spat out the fibrous bits, but it was no worse than an over-mature snap peas pod. The adult cicadas are dying off now, and the decibel level has dropped.

Too much rain! But garlic scapes to cheer us up.

Having plenty of 5 gallon buckets is important. Credit Bridget Aleshire
Having plenty of 5 gallon buckets is important.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

We had 4.6″ rain over a few days and nights. We had to dig trenches across the potato patch to drain out the water, which had reached the tops of the hills (thank goodness we got the first hilling done before the rain!) We also dug “:flood abatement” ditches at the low end of our raised bed area. Even so, we have been really restricted in where we could work. I tell people to harvest or weed at the dry ends of the beds, and back out as soon as their feet start to sink in mud. I don’t want us to compact the soil and make future drainage worse, and give the roots have a hard time growing. To use the rainy weather, we washed our work gloves and started tackling our “Stuck Buckets” stacks. I don’t think we unstuck any at all last year. We had about 50 or so stuck in pairs or triplets. After wrangling them and trying various back-muscle-risking maneuvers, we run them through our commercial dishwasher. When the plastic is hot, the wet buckets come apart more easily.

Blueberry bush with green berries. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Blueberry bush with green berries.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We’ve had to be creative in finding work we can do. Tempting as it is to take a big nap, I know we will be scrambling later, as soon as it warms up and dries out. So yesterday we put our blueberry netting up. The berries are still green, in some cases they are still blossoms, but it’s one job we won’t have to do later. We’ve also pre-emptively been organizing our drip tape and setting up systems we won’t need for at least a week.

This is how we usually sow our leek seedlings in an outdoor nursery bed. Credit Kathryn Simmons
This is how we usually sow our leek seedlings in an outdoor nursery bed.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We’re also starting our leek transplanting. Normally we do this in early June, but this year we sowed our seeds in flats rather than in an outdoor nursery bed, and the plants are big earlier, especially the faster growing King Richard and Lincoln. So we’re going to transplant those today. They are nice and cold-tolerant (we’ve got a forecast low of 34F in a few days!), and will keep us from putting tomato plants out too early and regretting it later.

Starting to harvest garlic scapes lifts our spirits because it is a tasty attractive new crop for the year, and pleasant work. Here’s what I wrote about them for my book, Sustainable Market Farming (c) Pam Dawling 2013.

Garlic plants in late spring. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Garlic plants in late spring.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Garlic scapes are the firm, round seed stems that grow from hardneck garlic and start to appear three weeks before harvest, as the bulbs size up. If these are removed, the garlic bulbs will be easier to braid, if you want braids from hardneck varieties. Scapes also make an early-season visually attractive crop. Contrary to ideas mentioned by some sources, leaving scapes in does not increase the storage life of the garlic.

Most people who remove scapes cut them where they emerge from the leaves. We prefer to pull ours, to get the most out of them. We don’t wait for the top of the scape to loop around, as the scapes will have begun to toughen and reduce the final yield of the garlic. As soon as the pointed caps of the scape have cleared the plant center, grasp the round stem just below the cap and pull slowly and steadily vertically upwards. The scape emerges with a strange popping sound and you have the full length of the scape, including the tender lower portion. Sometimes the scapes will snap rather than pull right out, but the remainder of the stem can be pulled next time, when it has grown taller.

We gather into buckets, with the scapes standing upright, so we can put a little water in the bucket and the scapes are aligned, easy to cut up. They will store well in a refrigerator for months if needed. Late morning is a good time to pull scapes (or early afternoon). The wound heals over in fifteen to twenty minutes in the heat of the day, whereas otherwise it could drip for up to 24 hours, increasing the risk of disease, and losing water from the plant.

We harvest scapes two or three times a week, for about three weeks in May. The crew always enjoys this task, partly because it’s a stand-up job and partly because we encourage a friendly competition to see who can get the longest scape of the day. This encourages everyone to perfect their technique too. Scapes can be chopped and used in stir-fries, pesto, garlic butter, pickles and other dishes in place of bulb garlic. They can also be frozen for out of season use. Searching the Internet will reveal lots of recipes. Scapes sell in bunches of six to ten. One acre (0.4 hectare) of hardneck  garlic can produce 300–500 lbs (140–225 kg) of scapes.