Saturday, 28 September 2013

Comparing Perennial Leeks with Regular Leeks


Perennial Leeks

Perennial leeks are rare and difficult to find in Australia for some reason, yet they are simple to grow and one of the best and most productive vegetables to grow for home gardeners.  I would hate to be without them again, if we ever lost them in a bushfire or something I would be devastated.  I have had a lot of questions about the perennial leeks from different people, so thought it best that I write another post and answer some of them.

Perennial leeks Australia
Perennial leeks - note the baby leeks growing from their bases

 What are they, how to grow perennial leeks?

I have some growing notes here.  I will tell you a few things now that were not covered in my growing notes page.

Perennial leeks are an amazing plant, they are hardy, productive and delicious.  People often ask when to plant perennial leeks, we plant and divide perennial leeks all year.  When we harvest a leek for dinner I then plant the small baby leeks that are growing from the large one's base.  It is only over the hotter summers when the plants are dormant that we do not harvest leeks, even then I occasionally dig up the bulbs and plant them out in other places.  Even when we lived near Canberra we could divide and plant them all year, the frost and the heat does not seem to be too much of an issue with them.

Summers here are extremely hot and dry and the leeks tend to die down to bulbs, in cooler climates or even cooler years they grow all year.  They flower here but generally nothing comes of it.  One year after floods we had them set viable seed which I think was a cross between the leeks and elephant garlic, that year the flower heads also grew small leek bulbs in the same way that tree onions grow small onions on the flower stalk.  These things have only happened that once and I have not been able to convince them to flower since.

Some people ask me how they compare with other types of leek.  When I wrote my first perennial leek post I had never grown or eaten any other varieties of leek to be able to compare, since then I have grown and eaten some regular leeks so can compare them.  I considered buying some leek seeds to grow, but I have grown onion seed and find them fiddly so did not want to do that if I did not have to.  The leeks in the supermarket were so much larger, both longer and fatter than the perennial leeks, so we bought some for dinner a few times just to see if they were any better.  After cutting off the roots with a few mm of shank I put them in a jar with a little water and they sprouted.  We used to do that with the perennial leeks to build up numbers the first year that we had them so figured it should work with any leek.  It worked fine and the regular leeks grew well.  I then grew the two types of leek, perennial and store bought, in adjacent beds to see how they compared. 
perennial leek plants
Perennial leeks - I need to take a few more pictures for this post

Comparing Perennial Leeks with Regular Leeks

Below is roughly how they fared compared with each other.  Please try to keep in mind I only grew them over one year, I had an unknown commercial supermarket strain (or several unknown strains), and had small numbers of store bought leeks so this comparison is far from scientific:

The store bought leeks taste pretty much the same as the perennial leeks, no noticeable difference there.  Some people who I have sold perennial leeks to have claimed that the perennial leeks are sweeter or tastier, but I am not convinced that I could tell any difference.  Both types of leek cooked the same, neither one was tough or bitter or anything like that.

While the store bought leeks were larger, the perennial leeks grew faster and sent up a lot of babies and we ended up with a greater harvest of perennial leeks compared to store bought leeks on the same area of land.  So from a yield per area of garden the perennial leeks came out on top by a long way.  When harvesting perennial leeks there are always baby leeks that you can use as replacements, which maximises the use of space.

The perennial leeks reproduce slowly throughout the year, then around November they explode in numbers.  From one well grown plant I ended up with 128 leeks in 12 months.  During this time I would have been able to eat leeks as well as increase their number had I wished.  The store bought leeks did not flower in the 12 months, but I assume had I left them in for another 6 months or so they would have flowered and produced hundreds if not thousands of seeds.  I guess there is a trade off here, the store bought leeks would have reproduced more than the perennial leeks if they had more time, but we would not have eaten leek during that long time.  The time it would take to go from a seed to an edible leek is also a lot longer than to go from a baby perennial leek to an edible sized leek.

When saving leek seed it is advisable to grow out at a minimum of 80 plants to prevent problems with inbreeding depression, you would then rouge out any plants with undesirable characteristics (minimum numbers based on info from http://www.seedalliance.org/uploads/publications/Seed_Saving_Guide.pdf).  That is a lot of space to tie up each year just to produce leek seed for the following season.  Leek seed is only viable for a year or two, so you would end up having to tie up that much space all the time just to produce leek seed, you would then have to allocate another bed to produce leeks to eat.  Of course you could just buy leek seed each year, but then you may as well just buy leek from the supermarket to eat and use your vegetable plot for growing something else.  When growing perennial leeks you can grow a single plant if you wanted to and build up numbers from that, there will be no inbreeding, and rouging out is not needed as every baby it produces will be genetically identical to the parent (this is not exactly true as sometimes mutations pop up, but that is an in-depth topic that is best not covered here).  There is also no problem with perennial leek about having to isolate plants to prevent them crossing with the neighbour's leeks which can be an issue if you live in town.  So from a sustainability point of view the perennial leeks end up as the better option.

Regular leeks can be grown as perennials, harvested close to the ground and allowed to regrow.  Perennial leeks are superior here as they can be grown and harvested the same way but continually reproduce and allow you to build up numbers if you wish.

Regular leeks are a bit larger, but the ones I grew were nowhere near as large as they originally were in the store, perennial leeks are a bit smaller.  I assume that if I grew the perennial leeks better they would be a bit larger, but I also think that regular leeks will always be a bit larger than perennial leeks.  If you do not divide them, the perennial leeks end up as a clump of hundreds of plants that are as thin as chives.  This can be a down side of perennial leeks, it can also be easily avoided by dividing some of them occasionally.

One of the store bought leeks grew with a red stem and looked nice, the perennial leeks were just green.  Occasionally a variegated perennial leek turns up, but other than that they are just green.  I like the look of the variegated perennial leeks myself but they only seem to turn up occasionally.  At the end of the day these are a food plant, looks are secondary.

To the best of my knowledge there is only one or two varieties of perennial leek in Australia whereas there are a whole lot more varieties of seed grown leek.  Some types of seed grown leeks are suited to warm climates and others are suited to cool climates.  Some grow long and thin whereas others grow short and fat, apparently each of these types is better suited to different climates.  I have sent perennial leeks to a few parts of the country and so far am yet to find a climate in which they are not productive.  This lack of choice with varieties is not an issue as I am happy with these perennial leeks, if they were not fantastic then this lack of choice would matter a whole lot more.

From what I have been told perennial leek will cross pollinate with any variety of regular leek and they say that the offspring are less desirable than either parent, so if you grow both it is best to remove the flower stalk from the perennial leek to prevent problems.  I have never let regular leeks flower so can not say too much about the subject.  Perhaps if you were to let a regular leek flower next to a flowering perennial leek you could grow the resultant seed and perhaps get a new type of perennial leek!
Perennial leek bulbs - they only die down to bulbs some years if it is too hot or dry


My conclusion

Over all the perennial leeks were a lot easier to grow, they were producers of food throughout the year, they were producers of huge amounts of food for a small area, and I know that if I forget about them for a year (or ten) that they will still be there waiting for me.

After growing the two types of leeks and comparing them I don't think I can be bothered growing regular leeks again and will stick with the perennial leeks.  I understand that there are many varieties of regular leeks and someone should preserve them and prevent them from going extinct, but that someone should not be me at this point in time.  I am happy with perennial leeks and at this stage want to spend my energy saving seed of other things.

I do have perennial leeks for sale as well as some seeds, herbs and other perennial vegetables on my For Sale page.  I am not keen on posting outside of Australia unless you have already contacted your country's quarantine and are confident that they will be allowed through.  That being said I am happy to try my best to answer any questions about perennial leeks from people even if they are overseas.