Growing Great Leeks and Onions the British Way: Guest Post by John Miller of the Old School House Plantery

May 20th, 2010 § 4 comments

Triple Planted Lincoln Leeks and Savoy Cabbage,(with Garden Fork for Scale)

Triple Planted Onions

It’s the middle of May in New England and winter seems to be finally releasing its grip on the climate! Late last week I was planting onions and leeks and I invited Michaela to stop by as I knew what a leek aficionado she is and I knew she wanted some leek seedlings for her potager. I asked her if she knew about the hill or station planting method of planting leeks. She didn’t, so I promised an explaination. Here it is.

Traditionally, onions were ‘direct’ (sowing where they are to grow, in contrast to seed bed grown and transplanted) sown early in the gardening year, mid-March if possible. The grower then had to patiently wait for the onions to emerge to see what sort of crop he could expect. Patience was necessary as onions can take up to six weeks to germinate in open fields and in that time they were subject to the vagaries of the U.K. weather.  Despite its moist reputation, maintaining constantly damp soil for six weeks in the U.K. can be a problem!

Coincidental with me being in college, plug production, basically plants already growing in small pots such as those sold in six packs, for field crops was just being introduced. Using plugs a farmer could eliminate the wait time between sowing and emergence and start cultivating the crop as soon as the weeds emerged.

Multi-Sown Onion Plugs

Onions, and their cousins leeks, have very poor root systems so that a single seedling couldn’t hold together a plug very well. To overcome this onions, initially, but quickly followed by leeks, were multi-seeded into plugs and then the whole plug was planted out into the field. Initially 1 inch plug cubes were used and sown with five seeds so that the plug wouldn’t disintegrate during handling. I have slightly modified this system to suit my conditions. I use 1 inch round plugs, each 2 inches deep, sown with three seeds and then I plant the whole plug as a hill. The suggested planting density for onions is one plant every 4 inches so I put each hill out 12 inches apart in rows 16 inches apart. I just make a small hole in the soil and drop in a plug. This saves me time, fewer holes to make, and causes far fewer broken fingernails! This system also works really well if you are growing through mulch as you don’t have to tease the mulch apart quite as often.

Growing onions like this doesn’t give you as many big onions (how big is big? Last winter I did have Farmers Market customers asking me for smaller onions as some were too big for their needs) as you can get when they are grown individually. What will surprise most people though is that this system actually increases total yields compared to planting onions individually. Also, you won’t end up with misshapen onions, due to their being grown so close together, as the swelling bulbs push each other apart as they grow whilst still maintaining their shape.

Leek roots are adventitious – poorly branched

Single Leek Seedling Roots

Poorly Branched Onion Seedling Roots

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John Miller and his wife Diane Miller own and operate The Old School House Plantery in Brattleboro Vermont

Visit the Miller’s Etsy shop, Eclecticasia, for a selection of rare and beautiful plants.

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Article and photographs this post, © 2009/2010 John Miller

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