When we garden we typically can use all the help we can get. We can always use an extra set of hands, cooperative weather, more hours in the day, and a whole lot of luck. Often though, we forget that the very thing we are growing can be our most important partner.
One such vegetable that can help out in the garden is the leek. The leek is a member of the Liliaceae (Lily) family, within the genus Allium L. (onion). Since the leek is in the same genus as onions and garlic, it has some of the same beneficial properties. In the garden this includes helping repel insects away from other plants. This is where the idea of companion planting comes into play. As an example, carrots can be susceptible to attacks by carrot flies.
When carrots and leeks are planted together, the leek’s scent repels those flies by masking and creating confusion of smells, and therefore the flies are no longer interested. The carrots reciprocate by helping repel onion flies that can plague leeks. Plus these two work together as they grow to break up the soil which equals better carrot roots and larger leeks. Some of the other plants that leeks can benefit are strawberries, cabbage, celery, tomatoes, beets, and lettuce.
However, be wary that not all garden plants get along so well. Legumes do not grow well with leeks. Since legumes have nitrogen fixing bacteria in their root nodules, they are affected by members of the Allium genus. Leeks, onions, and garlic have antibacterial properties that can kill off the nitrogen fixing bacteria and may upset the legumes and the soil. For a full chart on companion planting click here: https://cdn.permaculturenews.org/images/Companion-Planting_afristar.jpg
Leeks are thought to have originated in the Mediterranean and Central Asia. Leeks are known to be cultivated and included in the human diet since ancient Egyptian and Roman times. It has been reported that the Emperor Nero enjoyed leeks immensely and ate copious amounts of them to help his singing voice. This earned him the nickname Porophagus, Leek Eater.
Leeks eventually made their way to Europe where they enjoyed some additional fame. The leek became the national emblem of the Welsh. As legend has it, the Patron Saint of Wales, St. David, ordered his soldiers to wear the leek on their helmets in a clash with the despised pagan Saxon invaders, as a means of distinguishing one side from the other. The battle itself is said to have taken place in a field full of leeks. To date, every year on St. David’s Day the leek is worn in the cap badges of soldiers in the Welsh regiment.
Adding to the Garden:
While you may believe the legend, or want to help out your carrots, adding leeks to your garden is easy. To start leeks, begin sowing seeds either indoors or right in the garden. Just be aware that leeks need at least 70-150 days of growing season (variety dependent) and germinate best when daytime temperatures are 65°F or warmer. When planting seedlings outdoors, place them 6-8” apart in 6” deep holes in slightly acidic soil (pH range 6-6.5). Do not cover leeks with soil, but water them after planting to allow soil to gently settle around them. As time passes, and the leeks are established, gradually add soil around the leeks and water when dry to the touch. This process allows the stem to blanch and elongate.
Unlike the onion, the portion of the leek that is consumed is not a bulb, but the stem. This edible stem is a very good source of vitamins A, C, K-1, folate, and manganese and a good source of vitamin B-6, iron, and magnesium. All these nutrients are packed into one, 54 calorie leek (89 grams). Leeks also contain antioxidants belonging to the polyphenol family of compounds, specifically flavonoids. The particular flavonoids in leeks are kaempferols.
Kaempferol is beneficial to us because it can prevent oxidative damage, arteriosclerosis, and the formation of cancer cells. With all of the nutritional benefits leeks offer, adding this versatile vegetable to your diet is an immense helper to your health. You can use them raw in salads or eat them cooked by simply sautéing or creating a vast array of soups and side dishes. Leeks can also help out with gut health as a pre- and probiotic. To learn more about gut health, probiotics, etc. click here: https://www.permaculturenews.org/2014/05/03/gut-microbes-probiotics-leaky-gut-and-autoimmune-disease/
Leeks can be added to kimchi, a fermented Korean dish. To make kimchi follow the recipe below:
Based on the recipe from Rebecca Bohl
1 head Napa cabbage, about 2 lbs.
¼ cup kosher salt
7 cloves garlic
1 tsp freshly grated ginger
1 Asian pear, coarsely chopped
1 T fish sauce
4 T Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru) or chili paste
1 medium daikon radish, peeled and diced
2 leeks, evenly sliced
2 – 8 oz. cans sliced water chestnuts, drained
Cut cabbage into quarters lengthwise and remove the cores
Cut each into strips 2” wide
Place in a large nonreactive bowl with salt
Use hands to massage salt into cabbage until it starts to soften
Add enough distilled water to cover the cabbage
Place a plate on top and weigh down with a heavy object. Let stand for 1 hour
Rinse the cabbage under cold water and place in a colander to drain for 15 minutes
Repeat this step two more times
In a food processor mix together garlic, ginger, pear, fish sauce, and gochugaru and set aside
Squeeze out any remaining water from the cabbage and place in a large nonreactive bowl
Add daikon radish, leeks, water chestnuts, and gochugaru mixture to the cabbage
Mix thoroughly, using hands* to work the mixture into the vegetables until they are coated
Place kimchi into glass or ceramic containers, pressing down until the liquid rises to cover the vegetables, leaving at least 1” of space. (if not enough liquid top off with distilled water)
Seal container with a lid
Let container stand at room temperature for 3-5 days to ferment
Check once a day, pressing down on the vegetables to keep them submerged
When the kimchi tastes as desired, transfer to the refrigerator to store
*Wearing gloves is advisable as the gochugaru can burn/sting your skin.
Keep it Clean:
However you chose to enjoy your leeks, be sure to wash your leeks thoroughly, as grit can hide in the layers of leaves. Leeks can be split lengthwise or sliced crosswise and rinsed again. To also prevent excess grit in your leeks do not pile soil around them when planting and do not use sand mulches.
Enjoy Your Leeks!
This mild flavored member of the Allium genus is not only a perfect addition to many recipes and garden spaces; it also has a remarkable history and plenty of health benefits. Adding leeks to your garden, diet, and historic storytelling, makes this Welsh emblem a true helper in and out of the garden.
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