Planting leeks, Growing for Market melon article, different weather

Planting leeks has been one of our main jobs this week. Two beds finished, three to go. When I wrote about this last year, I said we were trying leek seedlings in flats (rather than bare-root from an outdoor seedbed) for the second year, and doing the transplanting 2-3 weeks earlier than with our outdoor seedbed method, from the same sowing dates.

Leek planting diagram. Pam Dawling

Leek planting diagram.
Pam Dawling

This year we again used flats, and I think this will be the way of the future for us. It is easier to keep weeds at bay in flats than outdoors. We’ve cut back from 20 flats to 15, for the same number of beds, and still have plenty of plants. Next year, perhaps a further cut.

But I’m a bit unhappy with the root damage that occurs in getting the close-planted seedlings out of the flats. I know some growers trim leek roots before planting, but we never have. Extricating them from flats does produce a root-pruning of a sort. Last year’s leeks grew well, so I think I can ease back on worrying! Some growers use plug flats, but I can’t imagine having enough coldframe space for 5 beds x 4 rows x 90ft x 2 (6″ spacing) seedlings. 3600 plugs. Plus up to 10% spare to allow for non-germinating seeds, and for selecting the strongest.

A bed of overwintered leeks Photo credit Twin Oaks Community
A bed of overwintered leeks
Photo credit Twin Oaks Community

In 2013, I wrote about calculating the seed-row length for outdoor seed beds, and about using flats for the first time. We sowed 20 flats 12″ x 24″ with 6 rows in each. We found we had more plants than we needed, and we didn’t need the back-up sowing in April at all. We were still transplanting on June 20 that year.

In 2012, I introduced our furrow and dibbled holes system for leeks. I notice I said we were growing five varieties: fast-growing Lincoln and King Richard for eating in October and November, King Sieg for December, and the hardy Tadorna for December to February. I count that as four, not five, so I wonder about the fifth. We were still transplanting leeks on June 28, because the March 21 sowing got over-run by weeds, and we used our back-up April 20 sowing.



The June/July issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article about growing muskmelons aka cantaloupes. I was surprised to find I had never written about growing melons for Growing for market previously. There’s a chapter in my book, of course. Melons are one of my favorite fruits, and I enjoy even looking forward to them! I wrote about the different types of melons and why the ones we call cantaloupes are actually muskmelons; how to start the seeds; transplanting and direct sowing; keeping the bugs off and harvesting. There are also lists of pests diseases you hope not to get, and some handy resources.

I wrote a complementary post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blog about personal size melons, something we are trying again this year.

Kansas Melon. Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Kansas Melon.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In this issue, you can also read the cover story by Emily Oakley and Mike Appel of Three Springs Farm in eastern Oklahoma, about having small children while farming. Worth learning from others’ experience before launching into that project! Periodical cicadas are the subject of Lynn Byczynski‘s editorial. They were here on our farm in 2013.

Regina Dlugokencky of Seedsower Farm in Centerport, New York writes about a new organic farming opportunity: the supply of organic mulching materials from the current proliferation of microbreweries. She has had success using Spent Brewers Grains (SBG) on Long Island. One micro-brewer can produce 220 pounds of SBG per working day. Read the complete report at – search for Project Number FNE12-743.

There’s also an article about two electronic record-keeping systems you can use on your smart phone, if you have one. COG Pro (use the word Guest as username and password) and FARMDATA. Next up is an article about a small flower farm in County Cork, Ireland. Gretel Adams closes with an article about flower photography to increase sales.

Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting. Credit Kati Folger
Chitting seed potatoes ready for planting.
Credit Kati Folger

And lastly, the weather. After days without rain, with forecasts including “chance of thunderstorms” that went everywhere but here, we finally are getting some rain. Hoeing is out, transplanting is in, as is setting seed potatoes to sprout for our second planting, in a couple of weeks.

For weather-entertainment from the safety of your own desk, check out Real time lightning. Of course, if the lightning is close, you might  close down your computer and not get zapped.



Transplanting leeks, sowing sweet corn, hoeing weeds

Leek seedlings growing in an outdoor nursery bed. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Leek seedlings growing in an outdoor nursery bed.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Our late afternoon transplanting shifts with just four experienced people have been proving so successful that we decided to continue for another week and get our leeks transplanted in that time slot. Previously we have transplanted them in the mornings, on our regular shifts, using the logic that the leeks have narrow leaves that don’t lose water quickly, and we are planting deep in holes, where they will stay cool and damp.

Leeks are slow growing, but easy to care for and frost tolerant.The ideal size for transplanting is between a pencil lead and a pencil in thickness. We plant at 6” (15 cm) spacing, with 4 rows to a 48” (1.2 m) bed. Before 2013, we sowed all our leek seedlings in an outdoor nursery bed, and transplanted the leeks as bare root starts. It worked fine if we had a relatively weed-free nursery bed, but was troublesome if we got a lot of weeds. We like the ease of having the seedlings outdoors – less congestion in the greenhouse and cold frames, one thing less to hand-water multiple times a day.

Last year we had a late wet spring and didn’t have the nursery bed ready, so we decided to sow in open flats, and it worked well. This switch was helped by deciding to cut celeriac and kohlrabi from our repertoire, freeing up lots of cold-frame space. We decided to repeat that method this year, and it looks like it is the way of our future.

We use a special planting technique, in order to develop long white shanks, which are prized more than the equally edible green parts. We find it efficient to divide the crew up and specialize in one part of the job.

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 leek planting are called “dibbles” or dibblers, purpose-bought or 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. It’s 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 or one of the open flats and transfers them to a small bucket containing an inch or so of water. We make useful little buckets from 1 gallon plastic jugs with the top cut off. A rope handle knotted into holes at the top of the new bucket make it easy to carry. Resist any temptation to trim either the roots or the tops of the leeks.

Chapter 52, Leek diagram

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 good size, and looks healthy, twirl it as you lower it into the hole to prevent the roots folding back on the plant, 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 or a watering can. The goal is to water the plant roots, not to wash soil into the holes. 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.

Keep the soil damp for several days after planting, and then give 1” (2.5 cm) water per week as needed. Like other alliums, leeks do not compete well with weeds, so cultivate as needed. Some people hill up their leeks, but if you do, be careful not to get soil above the point where the leaves fan out from the stem, or they will be very hard to clean later.

So far, we have planted out almost 3 of our 5 hoped-far leek beds. At 90′ x 4 rows x 6″ spacing, that’s a total of 3,600 leeks! Makes winter so much more satisfying!

Also this week, we have been hoeing galinsoga everywhere, and sowing sweet corn, our third planting. We like to make furrows by hand, fill them with water, then drop the seed into the mud and cover it, tamping the soil to ensure good contact between seed and soil. We sow several varieties (with different numbers of days to maturity) on the same day, so a planting will give us at least two weeks of delicious corn. In this photo from a previous year, you can see (from left to right): later-maturing Silver Queen, not yet at full height; red-flowered Kandy Korn; fast-maturing shorter Bodacious.

Credit Kathryn Simmons