January 10, 2016

Garden Review 2015: Garlic, Leeks, Ramps, and other Alliums

Alliums are a fantastic group of plants. I have loads of alliums planted in different areas, some growing as perennials, some as annuals.

I've been growing Music garlic these last few years, a hardneck in the Porcelain family which I got from my mom. It is awesome.

I had tried growing Applegate Giant and Mother of Pearl, both softneck varieties in 2012 and 2013. They did not work well for me, growing weakly and making small heads and cloves. Then I tried some Music, which my mom had been growing in Oregon for years. It blasted out huge, healthy plants, and made perfect looking large heads.

Porcelain family garlics tend to make very large cloves, but with few cloves per head. I typically get 4 or 5. They are easy to peel, and for people who use lots of garlic for cooking the large clove size is super convenient. Being a hardneck, they also send up tasty scapes in the late spring which should be cut and eaten.

Last winter I read an excellent book on this plant, The Complete Book of Garlic, by Ted Jordan Meredith.

It really is Complete, including a DNA analysis of different garlic families and how they are related, detailed descriptions, cultural information, history, health effects, cooking info, etc. Lots of great pictures too. I learned so many things I never knew about garlic before; it was so fascinating. Highly recommended. It is expensive from Amazon, but luckily I could order through the library.

The Complete Book of Garlic told me that the taste of Porcelain family is sometimes deemed a bit harsh and un-nuanced. I think they taste nice, but it did make me interested to try some varieties that are described as having superior flavor. Bulb production benefits from getting their scapes cut, which apparently is not true for all hardneck families (softnecks don't put up scapes). Porcelain makes among the biggest of cloves, but the smallest of bulblets if allowed to bolt fully. I've been planting on the order of 20 plants the last few seasons, which gives me about 16 heads to eat. One drawback of fewer but bigger cloves is that a bigger percentage of the harvest must be devoted to next year's seed.

I planted the cloves in the back terrace bed in September of 2014; they came up a bit before it got really cold in November. They spent the winter under some hay and record setting amounts of snow, then came up strong in the early spring and made the big, healthy plants I've come to expect from Music. Here they are in May, you can see the leek sets just getting going in the same bed:

Later in May

The scapes were cut and eaten; seen here with topset bulbs from the egyptian onions and some radish pods.

We dug them up in July, then hung them from a line under the front porch for a few weeks.

The kids cut off the roots and leaves and took off the dirty outer skins.

Violet tried using the hard neck cut offs for a straw. She said it tasted a little garlicky.

Here is the garlic we grew, ready to put in the garlic basket in the kitchen.

20 plants is enough to last us something like 4 months. I'd like to grow more, but as usual I have a space constraint on total planting are so more garlic means less of something else.

But reading that book made me interested to try some other varieties too, so in September of 2015 in addition to the Music I planted a little bit of Spanish Roja, Chesnok Red, and Tempest. The Spanish Roja is a Rocambole and supposed to be top shelf for taste. The Chesnok Red is a marbled purple stripe which I found interesting because purple stripes are genetically closest to primordial wild garlic. And the Tempest is an Asiatic garlic, which don't suffer much from leaving the scapes on and make cool flowers, plus large bulbils that can head in 2 years growth. I bought these other varieties from Filaree, which has a well organized and extensive selection of seed garlic.

Becky has been roasting chickens on a bed of leeks, which makes the leeks mind blowingly delicious. The chicken fat and juices dribble down and soak into the leeks, which also get a little burned during the cooking. The result is heavenly, and there is plenty of competition for these leeks around the table when we have a roast chicken dinner. Well at least between myself, Becky, and Violet. This made me want to grow some leeks.

I've talked to people who have tried leeks around here and not had great results. The season is not really long enough to grow big leeks as annuals without a greenhouse or other such measures. But I figured I'd give it a try.

We started King Richard and Megaton seeds in the basement under our homemade LED grow lights on Valentine's day.

They sprouted well, but did not get big

When I wanted to put them out at the beginning of April, they were still tiny so I got worried and ordered King Richard sets from Johnny's. We planted both the sets and the seedlings, the sets mostly in the back terrace bed,

the seedlings mostly in the orchard bed. I poked a stick in about 15cm, then we dropped a baby leek into the hole and didn't push the dirt in, leaving it to fill in or not on it's own.

The seedlings had long roots and I wasn't sure whether to trim them or not so I trimmed some and didn't trim others. I think the trimmed ones did a little better.

At first the sets were in the lead. But in the heat of summer, most of the ones from the sets bolted. What's with that? Are sets actually second year plants? I cut the scapes and we ate them, but the bolting led to many a leek having a hard and inedible core.

The seedlings did not bolt, and by late summer looked to be in better shape overall.

Unfortunately I didn't keep good track of which seedlings were King Richard and which were Megaton. All together we planted on the order of 50 plants.

I picked the leeks as appropriate, thinning out young ones earlier in the season. Here are some decent ones from late July along with a picking of pole beans.

This fall has been unusually mild and long which has allowed the last of the leeks to achieve a respectable if not enormous size,

We have been feasting on leeks through December. For thanksgiving we picked a whole mess of leeks

Buster and Millie and I cleaned them up

and brought them in for Becky to cook with.

She put an armload of them under the turkey. They were yummy, but didn't get quite the same burn they get with a chicken. Becky has also made a few batches of potato leek soup, and put them in other dishes like sprouted wild rice casserole. I put some into jars of kimchee and fermented veg.

A blog I came across and started reading over the summer called Turkey Song (now moved to SkillCult) had some great articles on growing leeks, wherein the author extols the virtues of collecting your pee and putting it diluted on the growing leeks. So I got a stainless screw cap water bottle to keep inside and labeled it "High Nitrogen Liquid Fertilizer - Not for Drinking". Don't worry, there were plenty of rains and watering between application and harvest! Now I think of all the pee going to waste all across the city, which could easily be used for fertilizer...  maybe I could go around the neighborhood with a pail soliciting donations?

Some of the pictures on Turkey Song of giant leeks left me feeling mighty impressed. Becky says a leek that big is not even useful, and what do you need with a leek that big? She thinks I'm enamored of the giant leeks because I'm a guy and there is some deep envy going on. Nonsense, I say; think how awesome it would be to have a 100mm thick leek log in your fridge for a couple months - you could trim off pieces at your pleasure for frequent use in the kitchen.

When Buster picked leeks with me for thanksgiving he wasted no time turning one into a pretend gun. So far my experience is that there is nothing in this world that a 4 year old boy can't turn into a pretend gun.

Buster really enjoyed processing leeks on the back yard table with me throughout the season. I would peel the outer layer of leaves off, he would cut off the roots and the dry or ragged leaf ends on the top.

One awesome thing about home grown leeks is that the leaves are good to eat, not all dry and fibrous like store leeks. So you get a lot of veg out of a couple leeks, even if the shafts are not all that thick.

The leeks worked out well. I've got about 10 more in the orchard bed that I'll probably pick next weekend. Steven Edholm (of Turkey Song) recommends growing long shaft leeks for as long a season as possible. He goes for about a year in California, using a variety that I don't think would do as well in our colder climate (Bulgarian Giant). I'm planning on trying out Giant Musselburgh and Carentan next year, and planting the seeds a few weeks earlier under brighter lights, maybe Feb. 1.

I have a space in the orchard reserved for a strip of perennial leeks. These make little offsets next to the main plant, which can be removed, planted, and grown up for harvest. This sounds easier and cheaper than buying and starting seeds every time, so I'm interested. For the last two years I have placed an order for the Perlzwiebel perennial leeks at Southern Exposure, but both times they had crop problems and sent my money back. They are not even listed in next season's catalog or on the website now :(

Just recently I read that hardy winter leeks normally grown as annuals can just be left in to perennialize; one guy's page suggested they could be hardy to zone 4. One reason I selected Musselburgh and Carentan for next year is that they are described as very cold hardy, so may have a chance of making it through winter with some hay on them. I'll also try leaving in a few of my remaining leeks in the orchard bed this year to see the results with either Megaton or King Richard.

This seemed like a possible candidate to colonize an area next to the driveway under maple trees, where most other plants have trouble growing. From Rampfarm.com I ordered some bulbs and the short book "Having Your Ramps and Eating Them Too", which strangely was not listed in the library catalog. As soon as I could penetrate the soil in early spring I put the bulbs in and they grew ok. Most flowered, then died away. We'll see how they come back next year. Ramps are more difficult to propagate than many other alliums. They don't split their bulbs prolifically like garlic. The seeds are not trivial to germinate and grow. So I don't know how it will work out, but reading all the descriptions of "ramp feeds" in that book makes me want to eat some ramps. One time I saw some at Whole Foods; one ramp was like $6 and it was not looking in top shape.

I feel sure there must be some around for foraging, but so far I have not identified any.

Egyptian Onions
These are going like gangbusters in the orchard bed. We cut green onions from them a number of times in the spring and fall, and I collected probably half of the topset bulbs. Some of the plants got tall enough to start interfering with the V pattern espalier Gold Rush tree in the west side of the bed, so I may thin some of them out next season in that area.

The plants look cool when they are doing their topset bulb/flower thing, and just plain crazy when the topset bulbs start growing new onion plants while they are still at the top of the original onion plant. Fractal plants!

Most of the topset bulbs got planted in the barren maple sidebar in the front, as an attempt to colonize the area with tough and useful plants. I sent a few to my mom as well for her to try out.

The majority of the plants are grown from topsets I bought from EgyptianWalkingOnions.com, but a small area is planted from some topsets I gathered while at Red Fire Farm two years ago. At this point the two areas are indistinguishable.

I love how vigorous, easy to propagate, tasty, and interesting looking these plants are.

Potato Onions
Tried a few of these in the orchard bed, the "Yellow Potato Onions" from Southern Exposure. They grew pretty well, but made small bulbs.

Millie had a fun time pulling them up when the plants had died back a bit in mid summer.

 I saved a couple to plant again next year, and Becky mainly used the other ones in making stock, which doesn't require peeling the bulbs.

I also bought some Green Mountain and l'Itoi bulbs from Steven Edholm in CA; these bulbs looked great and I would be very happy to produce such onions. We'll see if they do any better than the Yellow ones from SESE.

A small earth box planter on the front steps got a batch of new potting soil (1/3 compost, 1/3 coco coir, 1/3 vermiculite) and was planted in September with a sampling of the garlic and potato onions to see how they do up there. Most of the garlic and potato onions were put into the terrace bed which had tomatoes and carrots in 2015, after a frosting of compost and hay were applied. The bulbs came up a bit, especially the potato onions.

Green Onions
These continue to do well in the orchard bed, and we cut a number for use in spring. An unexpected benefit of allowing them to grow as perennials is their beautiful flowers.

I tried to add to their number by starting some seeds of Ishikura green onion inside and then moving them out to plant in late spring. I'm not sure they survived. I'm hoping the seeds dropped by the flowering green onions this year will fill in the area I reserved for them next year, and I'll thin as needed to define the planting.

If one has a ton of green onions, a wonderful way to eat the green leaf parts is to brush with olive oil, salt lightly, then roast until they get dry and crispy. Then they are like onion chips and are fantastically tasty. This also works well with home grown leek leaves as long as they have not got too fibrous. The white parts of green onions are also great brushed with oil, salted, and roasted until tender.

What a great plant. Looks nice, survives like a champ, spreads itself around but not too aggressively. And good to eat. I love to put a pile of chives on my pizza before it goes in the oven. They get all burned around the edges and soaked into the cheese in the middle. Also work well in jars of fermented veggies.

I replanted a few pots of chives we had in front to help fill in the garlic chive area in the orchard bed, and more to try to colonize the stubbornly bare maple sidebar. I figure if anything can make it over there it would be chives.

Garlic Chives
These took off this year, after a very modest showing last year. They grew up big and made pretty flowers with lots of seeds that I'll probably be pulling seedlings from next year.

You can see some of the interspersed chives and garlic chives at the foot of this Tydeman's Late Orange apple tree.

Didn't eat too many of them, but I cut a bunch at the end of the season to put in some jars of home made kimchee.

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