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Dublin: 3 °C Monday 16 December, 2019
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From the Garden: How to get the most out of your leek crop

Some advice on growing leeks and a delicious recipe for a potato and bacon bake to include them in.

Michael Kelly Grower

GALWAY IS FAIRLY renowned for the amount of rain that it gets – simply head west and as soon as you hit the Shannon it seems to start pouring.

Galway is also known for its stone walls and even stonier ground. One might think that these are not terribly promising conditions for growing food, but last week I visited a veg growing business that is defying the dodgy weather and disrupting an industry at the same time. 

It’s a tragic thing that commercial veg growing in Ireland is on its knees right at a time when science seems to have settled on a consensus that the diets that are healthiest for people and planet are those based predominantly on plants.

I recall hearing a learned gentleman from Teagasc on the radio when the Eat Lancet report came out, saying that Ireland’s land is not suitable for mass-scale veg growing. I felt that was pretty disrespectful to all the commercial veg growers in Ireland.

Hell, I felt that was pretty disrespectful to my own paltry efforts to grow food on boggy soil here in Dunmore East.

It’s an entirely outdated view of the world in my view, centered around the excuse of the way we’ve always done things – producing lots of beef and dairy for export. 

Anyway, try telling Kenneth Keavey in Galway that our land is not suitable for veg growing. Having worked in pharma in the UK, Kenneth moved back to the west of Ireland to take over the family farm in 2006.

He knew he wanted to manage the farm sustainably and having worked in pharma, he felt strongly that chemicals had no place in the production of our food.

So he chose to grow veg organically on 40 acres of stoney, wet land in Galway. Talk about taking the harder road. Rather than acres of mono-cropping, his farm is a more diverse affair that includes forestry.

We walked a field that had sprouting broccoli, kale, parsnips, carrots and leeks growing in it. In other words, more like you or I would grow them at home.

Contrary to what you might think, he told me that his greatest challenge is not managing pests (though pigeons are a big problem), but maintaining soil fertility and weed control.

He showed me how they undersow their brassica crops with red clover as a weed suppressant that also feeds the soil. Not surprisingly given this attention to soil fertility, his customers rave about the taste of the veg they buy from him. 

Originally he went down the traditional route, and had a sweet deal supplying 10 local supermarkets with the best quality, organic, seasonal veg.

But let’s just say he realised the supermarkets didn’t have his best interests at heart. Frustrated with the constant downward price pressure, he decided to sell direct to consumers, and so Green Earth Organics was born.

The company sells weekly organic veg boxes direct to around 2,000 customers mainly in Galway and Dublin, and through his farm shop in Corrandulla. At the height of the season, everything in the box is Irish and almost all of it grown on their own farm.

Out of season, he supplements what’s in the box with imported organic veg and other products. He employs 35 people from his community in this effort. 

There are some pretty depressing stories out there about veg growers going out of business and struggling to stay alive.

But, there are also stories of veg growers choosing a new path and disrupting the old ways of doing things.

I’m thinking of Drummond House Garlic, Ballymakenna Farm (with their beautiful heritage Irish spuds) and Kenneth Keavey.

These remarkable people (and their customers) give me hope for a truly sustainable Irish food industry, and hope is something worth latching on to these days. 

The Basics – Growing Leeks 

The traditional process of planting leeks is somewhat of a palaver called “puddling in”. You make a 6-inch hole with a dibber, drop the leek in and then fill the hole gently with water.

Do not backfill with soil – over the coming weeks it will fill itself. I’ve often wondered why you would put the poor little seedlings through such nonsense and stress. Far simpler I think to plant them as you would any seedling.

Make a hole, pop in seedling and backfill with soil. Job done. Again, I’ve tried both methods and haven’t noticed any major difference, so I think the latter way is probably easiest. 

If you’re a real leek head and want a continuous supply (and you have the space) sow as follows:

  1. February – plant out in April, will be ready to eat in early autumn
  2. March – plant out in May, will be ready to eat in early winter
  3. May – plant out in June, will be ready to eat in late winter

I’m a one-sowing kind of guy – so I will generally sow one decent batch of them some time in March/April and start eating them in January.

Advice

Leave 15cm between plants and 30cm between rows.

Keep the leek bed well weeded. Leeks have to be earthed up during the growing season – this process encourages the bleaching or whitening of the stem.

If you don’t earth up you will be left with leeks which are predominantly green with just a small amount of edible white stem.

Earth up twice during the season.

When harvesting, don’t try and pull the leek out of the soil by the top as you would a carrot – their roots are surprisingly fibrous and strong. So use a fork.

Winter varieties can stay in the ground until needed, although in a very harsh winter you might need to use them up – constant freezing and thawing will eventually turn them to mush. 

Recipe of the Week – Leek, Potato and Bacon Bake 

This bake recipe from Jane Hornby is a cross between two classics – creamy dauphinoise and pommes boulangère (potatoes cooked in stock). You’ve got to love any recipe that has double cream in it. 

Ingredients 

  • 600ml chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1kg potato, thinly sliced
  • 6 leeks, thinly sliced into rounds
  • 25g butter
  • 3-4 rashers streaky bacon, snipped
  • 3 tbsp double cream (optional) 

Directions 

Heat oven to 200 degrees Celsius/fan 180 degrees Celsius/gas 6.

Put the stock in a large pan, bring to the boil, then add the potatoes and the leeks.

Bring back to the boil for five minutes, then drain well, reserving the stock in a jug.

Meanwhile, butter a large baking dish.

Layer up the potatoes and leeks in any which way, seasoning as you go, then scatter the bacon over the top.

Season well, pour over 200ml of the reserved stock, then spoon over the cream (if using) and cover with foil.

Can be made up to one day ahead and chilled.

Bake for 40 mins, uncovering halfway through so that the bacon crisps. 

Michael Kelly is an author, broadcaster and founder of GIY.

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Michael Kelly  / Grower

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