What’s that smell? Wild leeks should be in abundance this year despite hard winter

A few cups of freshly cleaned wild leeks exude bright purples and greens, as well as a pungent aroma that the camera cannot capture. A native, wild food that tastes a bit like a combination of garlic and onion, the leek — also know as the ramp — is a coveted edible found in local forests this time of year.

Despite deep snow and freezing temperatures that battered the four-county region this winter, area residents will likely not have a problem finding the long-awaited wild leek — a forest vegetable resembling a mix between onion and garlic. 

In fact, the wild leek is quite hardy and will survive harsh weather patterns, Penn State Extension area commercial horticulture educator Thomas G. Ford said. 

“It should be a good year because the snow cover provided good insulation for them from the biting cold,” Ford said.

Ford said the wild leeks can be harvested in March through April, and they naturally grow in higher elevations from Georgia to Canada. Resembling large scallions, leeks, also known as ramps, have slightly enlarged lower stems and upright leaves that are flat and thick.

“Expect a good year except where they have been harvested too heavily ... most rural residents take pride in their ramp patch and our good stewards,” said Ford, who works out of the Cambria County office and responded to The Era’s request for comment.

Leeks can be home grown, as well. Master gardener Mary Ann Miller explained on the Penn State Extension’s website that leeks should be planted in April, when the soil has dried and warmed.

The leek likes to be planted in the full sun, as well as in slightly acidic soil (pH of 5.5 to 7.0) that is well-drained and rich in organic matter, according to Miller.

“Because the white portion of the stem is what is used in cooking, leeks should be planted deeply to promote blanching,” she said. “Soil can also be ‘hilled’ around the lower portion of leeks as they grow to shield the stem from becoming green, which occurs when it is exposed to the sun. Some gardeners plant leeks in a trench and then add soil as the leeks grow to ensure a longer white stem.”

Miller said she is always scouting out ways to make gardening easier and has found a fast, less labor-intensive way to plant leeks in her raised beds.

“After preparing the soil, I mark off rows about a foot apart,” she said. “I then use a garden fork to carefully create deep holes along the row. I then put the leeks in alternate holes to allow sufficient space (about 4 inches) between plants, leaving just the very top portion of the leaves above ground to blanch the lower stem.”

Individuals should monitor the leek bed to make sure there is enough moisture during the growing season.

“Watering at soil level with a soaker hose is preferable to overhead watering, which can promote fungal disease. Add mulch to retain soil moisture and control weeds,” Miller said. “Leeks are susceptible to the same diseases as onions. Use a preventive fungicide if you have experienced problems growing onions in your garden. They should also be monitored for onion pests such as leaf miners and thrips. A three-to four-year crop rotation schedule will help to control disease and insect problems.”

Leeks can be harvest once the stem is one inch in diameter or somewhat larger, she said.

“When harvesting, do not attempt to simply pull out the deeply planted leeks or they may break off. Instead, insert a digging fork and lift them out, being careful not to damage the leeks as you dig,” Miller said.

As is often the case, people consume the white part of the stem. Leeks can be added to soups, stews, stuffing, gratins and casseroles and sautéed with other vegetables such as carrots. However, the greens are also edible in a pesto or stir-fry.

“If you like leeks, growing your own will provide a bountiful harvest of quality vegetables at minimal cost,” Miller said.

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