Friday, December 17, 2010

The mysterious tale of the leek and the green onion

~Carrie Holt

Several years ago I pulled up my bed of ornamental bushes and replanted with a variety of herbs and leafy greens in efforts to eat healthy and locally. With one year of success under my belt, I decided to dive into urban farming and plant a full bed of leeks, potatoes, tomatoes, and other summer delights. My impending success transforming a relatively low-value bed of bushes into my own local source of produce was thrilling.

My new-found ambition was tempered, however, by past failures at starting plants from seed. Luckily, my partner’s mother is a master in all things green, and supplied me with 30 leek seedlings to get me started. I carefully raised the seedlings indoors with vigilant attention to light, heat, and water levels, hoping to demonstrate that her trust in my growing abilities was well founded. By the end of spring, the leeks still looked like blades of grass, but were growing too tall for their indoor home. So, as instructed, I dug long troughs in my bed, sprinkled some organic fertilizer, and planted the leeks careful to leave the trough relatively deep and allow space to cover the stem as they grew. Patiently, I waited through the summer for the leeks to grow. In the mean time, the kale came and went, tomato flowers bloomed but fruit did not ripen, potatoes were planted, grew and died back. Still, the leeks looked like (perhaps slightly thick) blades of grass. Despite their stunted growth, I slowly filled the trough with dirt, hoping to encourage more height if not width.

By fall, I started to question the origin of my leeks, a suspicion that was supported by research online. Perhaps my leeks were in fact not the hardy vegetable I had hoped, but were scallions, a culinary younger sibling often used as garnish? Although a comparison of my “leeks” with those grown my partner’s mother showed huge differences, she convinced me that there had been no such mistake with the seedlings.

Now, I may have settled with measly, mini leeks (or scallions) and enjoyed a single side-dish with all 30 of them, if it weren’t for an opportune cycle tour this fall through the country gardens of Burgundy, France. With leeks as thick as my ankle and chard the size of palm leaves, I felt like I was cycling through a wonderland of mammoth vegetables. How were these gardeners so successful where my efforts were so fruitless (assuming I as indeed growing leeks)? My spacing was similar, I had been careful about watering, and weeded relentlessly. After careful inspection I noticed that vast fields for cow grazing around these gardens, and huge inputs of natural fertilizer from manure. I reflected on the decrepit-looking lawn surrounding my vegetable bed, complete with a thick layer of moss (indicating poor nutrients) and several mature trees (likely sucking nutrients and water from below). Was the solution to introduce cows to my yard?

Being a resident of the city of Nanaimo, cow grazing was an unlikely option. Thankfully, friends outside of Nanaimo offered me a truck full of composted horse manure. So after a week of digging, sifting, mulching, and moving manure, I now have a nicely reconditioned bed of soil ready for next year’s planting.

Is the answer to this mystery soil reconditioning or a case of mislabeled seedlings? Stay tuned till next summer for the answer.

Thanks to Pat for the seedlings and advice, Rob for his super-human efforts in the garden, and Laura and Stewart for the kind gift of manure.

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