Thilaka Baskaran says this cousin of onion and garlic grows well in a cool yet sunny spot

Driving on undulating roads in Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka, we went over hillsides carpeted with blue green plants. The leafy plants, which made for lustrous hill cover were also used as colourful border in many home gardens, we found later. They turned out to be leek, the Central Asian cousin of onion and garlic.

I picked up some leek seeds there and have been growing them successfully in Bangalore for the last two years.

Popular abroad

Romans are believed to have introduced the plants in the United Kingdom where they became popular and were even made the symbol of Wales. Archaeological evidence is said to indicate the presence of leek in the Egyptian diet since 2 BC. They have been cultivated in Central Asia and Europe for thousands of years, but are not very popular in India, which is why you do not come across them in our vegetable markets. Nevertheless, they are easy to grow.

The edible part of leek is not the leaf or bulbs but the white elongated stem, a long cylinder of bundled sheaths.

Plenty of water

Leeks need a cool temperature, yet a sunny site with well-drained soil. They need plenty of water, especially early in their growth. They can be either sown in a bed for transplanting or sown in a permanent position.

If sowing directly, seed them in rows 30 cm apart, in shallow groups, about a centimetre deep. After a month, thin out the plants to 15 cm. The ideal time to transplant is eight weeks after germination when the plants will be pencil-thick and about 20 cm high. Garden books emphasise on blanching the plants so that more edible stems can be produced. Blanching is a process in which you cut out light around the stem so that chlorophyll production is prevented. This can be achieved by mounding soil around the plant when it is directly sown.

If you transplant, dig a hole with a 2.5-cm thick stick, about 15 cm deep. Make the hole slightly larger on top by moving the stick from side to side. Lower the young plant into the hole gently and fill the hole with water. The water will wash enough soil gradually and fill the hole as the plant establishes itself.

Water the leek generously and apply nitrogen-rich manure periodically.

Leeks are ready to be harvested when they develop a white section 15 cm in length and about 2.5 cm thick. They can be left on the ground for 12 months and harvested whenever needed.

As they stay on the ground for a long period, they can also be grown as a border plant.

Leeks are largely free of pests although small slugs and snails can take residence within the leafy folds. Sprinkle used coffee powder around the plant to keep them away.

Beneficial properties

Like onion, leek has beneficial compounds such as anti-oxidants, polyphenols and flavonoids.

It has a pleasant flavour and is excellent in soups, salads and baked casseroles.

Keywords: leek seeds

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