November 2, 2009

Leeks - their Growing and Showing.

Growing and Showing Leeks. - A traditional Northumbrian art and science.

By Clive Dalton and Tony Wright

Prize pot leeks exhibited by
'Tom Tom' Thompson, Bellingham Leek Show, 2009

In the early 1900s and up to the end of the 1939-45 war, ‘Geordies’ in the North East of England who hewed coal, made guns for Vickers Armstrong, and built ships on the Tyne that sailed the world, never had time or money for fancy recreations.

They sank a few pints at the pub to wash down the day’s dust and hoyed a few darts, and when they were flush or desperate, they’d ‘lash oot’ with a few bob on a greyhound. Then on Saturdays, to a man, they’d offer advice to the ref at St James’ Park, urging their Newcastle United lads to ‘pass the baall te Jackie’ (Milburn)! If ‘Wor Jackie’ didn’t save the day, Tyneside was in mourning for that week.

The allotment
Quite a few men had gardens, but they were not attached to their ‘one-up and one-doon’ houses mass built in long ‘raas’ (rows), so they rented an allotment from the local Council. Here they grew potatoes, turnips, peas, leeks, celery and onions to feed the family – good basic vegetables and ‘nowt fancy’ like the range you see in today’s supermarkets. Sometimes a lad with a ‘softer spot’ would grow a few ‘flooers’ (sweet peas, dahlias, calendulas or chrysanthemums) for ‘his missus’ (wor lass) or ‘fancy woman’ (not wor lass!).

Many of these industrial workers had a brightly painted pigeon ‘cree’ (loft) at their allotment, with a ‘form’ or a ‘cracket’ outside, so they could sit sucking their pipe while watching ‘thor bords fleein aroond’ for exercise, and especially during the anxious time of waiting for their pigeons to ‘clock in’ at the end of a race.

In theory, the good thing about allotments was the communal fellowship, away from the nagging ‘in the hoose’, and sharing knowledge while seeing how your neighbours’ crops were ‘makin oot’. But there was a downside – jealousy; it could lead to theft or sabotage of prize vegetables just before show day!

Early environmental control
In pre- and post-war days, horticultural technology was restricted to a cold frame made from an old window. Then with a few saved-up winnings or from selling vegetables, if the money didn’t end up in the coffers of the breweries, some gardeners bought a small greenhouse. This was the pinnacle of technology.

Glass ‘cloches’ appeared after the war and we all thought they were magic and worked like miniature greenhouses. But they were expensive, high cost in terms of breakages and awkward to store; thankfully they were overtaken by plastic.

Then about the 1960s came the ‘tunnel house’ now called a 'poly house'. These were easily constructed and covered in plastic which was cheap to replace after a life of from 3-5 years.
Then came chemical soil sterilisation and total environmental control, especially to avoid frost damage and allow early propagation. Our fathers and grandfathers sterilised soil for their greenhouse seed trays by boiling the cast iron kettle over a brazier in the garden and pouring the hot water over the soil. You hadn’t to be in a hurry!

The evolution of Leek Shows
People being people, it’s easy to see how competition arose (along with a few bets) over ‘whee’s got the biggest leeks”. For some reason, growing leeks evolved as the ultimate in horticultural skills. Onions and shallots would come a close second and celery maybe third; at least that was the case in the Dalton and Wright gardens, but other gardeners varied in their areas of expertise.

Official ‘Leek Shows’ evolved in the North East of England as an annual event in the late1880s. They got this title because leeks were the highest-prestige vegetable in the show, but entries also covered the whole range and a wide range of garden blooms as well as home baking.

Showing a “collection” of vegetables was (and still is) the ultimate test of a gardener’s skill to grow several different types of vegetables to a high standard. The collection is made up of three pairs of different vegetables displayed on a felt or velvet covered board. Most popular in the collection are blanch leeks, onions, long tapered carrots, parsnips, celery and possibly cauliflowers.

First prize vegetable collection. Bellingham Leek Show, 2009
won by Tony Wright. The pinnacle of a gardener's skills.

Rural Leek Shows
Growing and showing leeks was not exclusive to industrial Tyneside. Leek clubs grew up all over rural Northumberland where folk had bigger gardens and access to plenty of Farm Yard Manure (FYM) from local farms. The growers in town only had the horse dung dropped when the green grocer or coal delivery man called.

It was a common site on any village street to see a great cart load of highly-aromatic muck sitting in the gateway of people’s houses, waiting for them to come home and drag or barrow into their garden after work. Their non-gardening neighbours never looked forward to this early sign of spring!

Pot leeks at Lanehead show 2008. Photo (copyright) by Helen Brown.

There were classes for vegetables at shows in Northumberland like Bellingham, Falstone, Woodburn, Otterburn, Lanehead, Allendale, Slaley, Hexham, Rochester and Alwinton. At the larger shows like Bellingham, vegetables were displayed in the ‘industrial’ tent along with handcrafts, cakes, children’s work and dressed shepherds’ sticks.

But if there was a local Leek Club, you could rest assured that gardeners’ best specimens were kept for their Leek Shows. The prize money was usually a pound for first, ten shillings for second and five shillings for third.

Bellingham and District Leek Club
Photo 1935.
Here's an incredibly interesting photo for so many reasons. It was taken in the Bellingham Town Hall in 1935, and the photographer has been up on the balcony to take the shot. The chances are very high that it would have been taken by W.P Collier, the famous village photographer, as nobody else at that time would have the gear - large format camera using glass negatives.
It's been taken with available light, (it's not flashed) and it's amazing that there are so few folk who have moved. He must have had them well schooled.

Tony Wright was given the photo with glass and frame broken.

The identity of the members is shown below. I drew the shapes not thinking that they looked like tombstones - but as all these great folk are now dead, I hope it will be seen as a tribute to their memory.

The Bellingham Club was formed in 1927 and there were many founding members who supported the club for up to four decades. The Hexham Courant reported these details of the third annual show.

‘Bellingham and District Leek Club. The third annual show was held in the Town Hall on Saturday. There was a good number of entries which were of excellent quality. Also included I this year’s show were classes for white and brown bread. At the close of the show, the exhibits were sold in aid of the Royal Victoria Infirmary. The Hon secretary for the show is Mr R, Richardson, Bellingham’.

From the winners listed in the various classes you can see who the founding members were:
A. Wright; Thos Wright; J. Milburn; W. Ridley; R. Richardson; R.J. Burn; W. Armstrong; J.C. Hall; A. Hardie; A. Dodd; T. Davidson; H. W. Dalton; E.E. Johnson.

The prizes for white bread baked with Messrs Little’s flour (in merit order) went to Mrs Rutherford of Garret Shields, Mrs R. Burn of Bellingham, Mrs Scott of Hareshaw and Mrs Isa Scott of Bellingham.

The brown bread prizes (in merit order) went to Mrs Rutherford, Miss Davidson from Stocksfield, Mrs Dagg of Bellingham and Mrs Hedley of Bellingham.

White bread prizes (in merit order) went to Mrs Rutherford, Mrs R. Hedley, Mrs E.E. Johnson and Mrs F. Coulson.

In the early years, the Leek Show was held every year in October, but was brought forward to October in the 1960s.

Rules (2008)
  1. All vegetables and flowers to be staged by 10.45 am.
  2. All members are expected to stage two pot leeks. Entry 2 pounds sterling.
  3. All leeks and onions confined to members. To be stamped with club stamp.
  4. All leeks to be fresh pulled and sound all round. To be checked at door.
  5. All exhibits to be grown by exhibitor.
  6. Judges' decision will be final.
  7. Any complaints to be made to the Secretary on the day of the show with 15p deposit. This will be returned if complaint is proven. Committee decision to be final.
  8. Entry fees for all classes (except Open Flowers and two pot leeks) will be 5p per entry.
  9. All blooms to be left for sale.
  10. Vases provided by exhibitors.
  11. Prize money to children will be paid out at school.
  12. Closing date for entries other than bread - 1st September.
  13. All entry fees to accompany entries.
  14. Leeks to be grown in trench, cover optional.
  15. Onions to be grown in bed, cover optional.
  16. All entries to be left for sale, except leeks, onions, onion sets, carrots, shallots.

Club secretariat
After the first secretary R. Richardson, Harry (H. W.) Dalton was secretary until his death in 1963 when the family presented the ‘H.W. Dalton Cup’ (see below). The secretary had a major role in organising the show in September each year.

1946 Meeting minutes recorded by Harry Dalton - before ballpoint pens

The HW Dalton cup

When ‘Burnie’ the blacksmith died in 1970, the family presented the “R.J. Burns Cup’ (see below), then came the ‘Archie and Jimmy Wright Cup’ (see below) in 1986 when Jimmy Wright left the Eals farm in Bellingham to live in Morpeth. He returned to Bellingham ten years later.

Leek Club meetings were regularly held in the Fox and Hounds, where Jackie Potts (a founding member) and the pub landlord after his mother died was also a keen vegetable grower and exhibitor with plenty of good muck for his leek beds from his small farm. A Dalton family joke was how Dad always managed a quick exit at the end of Evensong on a Sunday night, across the road from St Cuthbert’s church to the Fox to see Jackie about some ‘urgent Leek Club business’.

Picture shows Harry and Lavina Dalton in their Council House garden at 31 Fairshaw Crescent in 1950, dressed for some special summer occasion - that Clive cannot remember!

The Club should have made Canon W. J. Flower an honorary member, as he was a keen gardener. But maybe ‘competition’ was a bit too near the risk of sinning in the C of E, as mother Dalton always had to get him to apply to the Bishop for permission to run a raffle for the Church Garden Fete!

It was only during the 1939-45 war that the Bellingham Leek Club didn’t hold a show, but members were still active in their gardens, growing food to feed their families in case we were invaded, and contributing money for those in need. Many of the founders had fought in the 1914-18 war so they had plenty of motivation.

A photo from a Bellingham Leek Club Show before the WWII showing
M.K. (Matt) Sisterson in 'plus-4s' inspecting the leeks.

The 2008 Show
The 2008 programme proudly displays a great collection of awards, commemorating wonderful past members. They include:
  • The Dick Glendinning Challenge Cup - for the best stand of leeks in show. Confined to pot leeks.
  • The H.W. Dalton Perpetual Challenge Cup - for the best onions in show.
  • The R.J. Burns Perpetual Challenge Cup - for the best collection of vegetables.
  • A. and E. Batey Perpetual Challenge Shield for the best exhibit in a range of flower classes.
  • P. Goodinson Perpetual Challenge Cup for the heaiest marrow.
  • W. Hall Perpetual Challenge Cup to member with most points in the Confined section.
  • A.D. and J Wright Perpetual Challenge Cup for the best leeks in show (pot leeks).
  • W. Thompson and A Moir Perpetual Challenge Cup for most improved grower of two pot leeks.
  • R. Robson Perpetual Challenge Cup for best exhibit of Lady's spray.
  • A. Batey Roseberry Perpetual Challenge Cup for best root crops.
  • Molly and Walter Forster Cup- for best flower exhibit.

Tyneside Pub Leek Shows

The Leek Clubs in the heart of Tyneside which ran their own and National shows, were at places like Newcastle, Ashington, Blyth and many more such as Durham. These had large coal miner populations and were attached to pubs where members paid in money each week. So by show time, the accumulated funds allowed them to buy what many rural club members saw as outrageous prizes.

Beer clearly kept the growers happy, and the breweries thrived and were keen to support these events. Their product was even recommended as a growth promotant for members’ leeks - either directly (or the next morning via the kidneys!).

My (Clive’s) Aunt and Uncle (Billy and Martha Smith) managed the Highlander Inn at Winlaton and their Leek Show was held in the pub. The prizes were suites of furniture, armchairs and cutting-edge household equipment like washing machines to replace the poss tub. Some of the prize winners didn’t even have a garden, although they didn’t admit this. If you had the right ‘marra’ (mate), a potential winning leek could be acquired for show day with no questions asked. In any case, by the end of show day, most members couldn’t have told a leek from a cabbage. Their prize armchair came in handy to sleep off the effects of competition. In disgust, my (Clive’s) Dad would never go near this event, and certainly never lowered himself to supply any leeks for their circus.

Noble Street gardens (Clive Dalton)
In Noble Street in Bellingham, all the 10 houses had a garden in front of each, about 30m long and 6m wide. These gardens were part of the house rent paid to the Duke of Northumberland as Landlord, and collected by his agent, farmer Geordie Breckons from the Foundry farm.

Each garden was on a slope, and the top end must once have been the ash pits as digging always brought up broken pottery or clay pipes. Dad had fenced off the bottom half of our garden to keep the rabbits out, and we grew mainly tetties, turnips, and brassicas on the slope. When digging on the slope, you always had ‘te hoy’ the soil up hill before raking it back down.

Before winter, in our garden nearest the front door we ‘pitted’ the tetties, beetroot, parsnips and carrots’, as there was no room inside the house to provide a frost-free space. Our pantries on the back of the house may as well have been freezers in winter as our buckets of water from the tap in the back lane would regularly have an inch of ice on them.

To make a pit you dug a round depression about three feet in diameter, heaping up the soil around the base. Then you stacked up the vegetables and covered them with a thick layer of straw or bracken, before laying a good thick layer of soil back on the sides to make a conical pit. When ‘patted weel doon’ and it was frost-proof all winter. It was opened at intervals to replenish the supply in the house, remembering to ‘hap’ it up well again. Many times the potatoes in a sack in the pantry got frozen – so we ate sweet-tasting spuds for the next 4-6 weeks before they went rotten.

To supplement our potato supply Dad often bought a bag of spuds from the Hay’s at Redeswood farm, which he carried it home on his bike, balancing the sack inside the frame while pushing the bike.

To protect cabbages from winter frost, we used to dig them up and then bury their heads in the soil leaving their roots in the air. They’d keep for months like this and be frost-free. Brussels sprouts loved the frost so they were just left out. Some believed that the frost even improved their flavour. Frost always improved the flavour of Swede turnips before pitting them. Those were not the days when kids declared what they didn’t like and wouldn’t eat! The kids word “yuk” had not been invented!

Dad rented another garden from the Duke for about a pound a year on the Woodburn road corner below the Noble Street houses where he had cold frames, the greenhouse and garden shed. This garden was well protected with a high wire fence and privet hedge (that provided endless cuttings for other gardeners in the village), and it was here that he grew his ‘show’ vegetables, as well as tomatoes in the greenhouse and cucumbers in the frames. We also had a strawberry bed and six apple trees.

Because of all the ground taken up for show vegetables that we couldn’t eat, Dad also had a small garden in the Foundry Yard which was technically part of the railway embankment. He paid 5 shillings a year for this for growing more potatoes and brassicas.

The Dalton greenhouse
The greenhouse was the nerve centre of the Dalton garden, and the new season’s action started when there was still snow on the roof (which had to be scraped off as glass was scarce).

During the winter the carefully labelled seed heads from last year’s winning leeks and onions had hung on the kitchen beam at the side of the fire. In about January, the ritual of ‘threshing’ the seed took place on newspaper (The Daily Herald), placed on the kitchen table so no seed was lost in the process.

After winnowing, the seed was left to dry out a bit more, ready for the start of the new season by planting in trays in the heated greenhouse on Christmas Day for leeks and Boxing Day for onions. So there were many anxious months ahead till Spring, and leeks were planted out in the garden from April onwards.

Heating the greenhouse
The heating of the greenhouse was a ritual in itself, especially at the critical time of seed germination when we lived in fear and dread of the ‘fire ganin oot’ during snow or a frost if Dad was on late shift on the railway.

To service the fire, your first opened the bottom door and give it a good rattle with the poker to make the ash go through the grating into the ash box, leaving the unburned clinker to keep burning – your hoped!

If by some disaster the fire had gone completely out, you had to drag all this clinker out with the ‘colrake’ and put it on one side – it was not to be wasted. The fire had to be reset with newspaper, kindling sticks and some decent coal – not the ‘slack’ coal (we called it muck) which was bought from Barty Armstrong at Hareshaw to ‘bank the fire up’ once it was going again.

Before you put more coal on the fire through the little top door, you used an old bent poker to break up any crust which had arched over and stopped burning. Replacing the hot doors on the fire with some tongs and without getting burned was a skill you soon had to learn.

Dealing with the clinker. There was always a riddle (sieve) handy and this was used to separate the large bits of clinker from the dust – which went on the garden paths. The clean clinker was then mixed with the new coal to get another burning out of it - you hoped!

After ‘banking up’ the fire with as much fuel as it would take, it was a grand sight on a frosty star-lit night to see the smoke from the little chimney rising high in the cold night air and the metal from of the fire glowing red with heat. You knew that the future prize leeks and onions would be safe for another 8 hours.

Other Bellingham gardens
I (Clive) knew many of the other memorable gardens in the village, as their owners used to buy leek and onion seedlings from Dad and I used to deliver them packed in wet newspaper on my bike.

A masterpiece garden belonged to R.J. Burn (‘Burnie the blacksmith) along the burn side where a feature was the layer of hoof trimmings from his forge. His jealous club members always blamed this for his ‘competitive advantage’, which was nonsense, as it took years for them to break down to supply the little extra nitrogen they would contain. When I visited Burnie on a delivery, he was always quizzing me over the state of ‘me fathor’s leeks’.

There were some good competitive gardeners in Percy Street too where their gardens were on a slope similar to Noble Street in front of the houses. So it was easy to keep a watching brief on what was going on there. Jack Hall in Crudas Terrace had a top garden and also being ‘the School Board man’, I never hung aboot there when on a delivery.

Subsequent generations of top gardeners in the 1960s and 1970s were Jim Bell, Willie Burn, Isaac Johnstone, John Bacon and Harry Smith. Messrs Burn, Bell and Smith were still showing vegetables until they retired in 2008 - and their loyal support over many years was sadly missed by the Club.

Preparing the leek trench
This was and still is very serious business and has always been both art and science. The secret is in the word ‘trench’. Preparing the leek trench was done by ‘trenching’ with the aim of getting a layer of magic mix down at least a good spade’s depth below the surface, right across the bed. So wherever you planted the leeks, they’d be right on top of their food supply.

You started this by digging the first deep trench and carrying the soil to the opposite side of the bed. Then after filling the trench with the appropriate potions, you filled the first trench in with the soil from the second one you dug next to it. This carried on across the bed until you ended up with the final trench, into which you filled the soil from the first trench.

Feeding the leeks (in the old days)
Leeks are described as ‘gross feeders’ and gardening books say they prefer a light soil. This is maybe the case for modern kitchen leeks, but it’s not the way competition growers saw things, as leek trenches that were down for decades develop into rich deep heavy soil, as the result of so much organic matter over the years. They would have to be called ‘heavy’ in soil classification terms.

Gardeners always ordered ‘hemmel muck’ from farmers from buildings where cattle had been kept in loose houses (hemmels) all winter, which had been regularly bedded up with straw that got pounded in and mixed with the dung. After delivery, this was kept it in a midden in the garden to rot and be ready for use the following year.

By this time it was hardly recognisable as cow muck and certainly had no smell. The Daltons always got a good cartload of hemmel muck from Riddles at Blakelaw farm and I (Clive) always remember the poor horse hanging in the breeching, shoes sliding on the road and the hind hanging on the reins, stopping the load getting away on it coming down the steep hill from the Blue Heaps. The horse probably didn’t realise this was a much better option than going the other way! There was never a shortage of FYM at the Eals farm for the Wright family leek trenches.

Nitrogen was important as a growth stimulant for leeks, but in the 1950s there was a very limited range of suitable ‘artificial’ fertilisers available. Blood and bone meal and dried blood were the only ones to supply nitrogen and there was Basic Slag (from iron smelting) which supplied phosphorus to the plants – very slowly. Superphosphate was just coming into popularity.

But then there was soot! George Colling was the Dalton annual chimney sweep and the soot was always gathered up into a small ‘poke’ (sack) for Dad’s magic mix in a wooden barrel in the garden.

Photo on left shows George and Ethel Colling outside their council house in Reedsmouth Road where they moved from Noble Street. George led the Bellingham road gang for 40 years - and swept chimneys to feed leeks!

The basic brew was a concentrated suspension of water and sheep muck (gathered from the fell behind Noble Street), and into this Dad dangled the magic bag of Geordie’s soot, which was shaken at regular intervals. The soot from Hareshaw coal probably contained some minerals and trace elements but it’s available nitrogen would have been very little.

In the old days of dry netties (toilets) and chamber pots, there was always a ready supply of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash from under the bed, if you could find a discrete way or time of day to carrying it along the street unseen to the garden! There were never any volunteers in the Dalton family to do that job.

To feed the leeks, you filled a watering can from the barrel of magic mix and filled up a drain pipe inserted into the ground next to each leek so the nutrients went rapidly to the leek’s roots.

An old Kiwi friend Alex Henderson brought up in Ford in north Northumberland, remembers local leek growers seeking out lambs' tails at docking from local farmers to put in the bottom of their leek trenches.

Digging the show entries
This was a time of high drama, and it was best to keep well away from the garden at this time and only offer to help if asked. Even then, it was better to have a bullet-proof excuse if you could think of one.

The onions and shallots were easy to lift without trauma as they grew on the soil surface so only needed a little loosening to free them.

The carrots and parsnips were a nightmare to dig as they were over 600mm (2 feet) long and well anchored in their sandy niche. To get this length, growers used to have a long pointed wooden pole (spile) about 100mm diameter that was hammered into the carrot bed, prepared by trenching much the same as for leeks.

The resulting hole was 2-3 feet deep, which was filled with sand, and the seed was planted on the top. The carrot or parsnip root then grew down unrestricted into the sand.

In digging these monsters, you first had to remove soil around the neck, well away from the root so there was no chance of accidentally cutting it through. In the increasing tension and frustration over how long the job was taking, you dare not wiggle the carrot or parsnip to speed up loosening incase it snapped.

The trick was to get the hose pipe with a fair bit of pressure and poke it into the ground around the neck of the carrot or parsnip to wash the soil away and hopefully loosen its hold. If more digging was needed, then a trowel was much less risky than the spade. You would never dare use a fork incase you impaled the potential champion!

Only when the carrot or parsnip was very loose in the watery mix, that you dare give it a wee tug – making sure when you did, that the hose was still filling up the soil around the root. Oh the relief when a monster specimen in perfect shape and blemish-free emerged. But oh the language when what looked like a perfect specimen half way down finally emerged with a forked root!

Leeks were dug with the fork (grape) a safe distance away from the barrel, and the soil carefully loosened to free the specimen without damage.

Leek terminology and specifications

Botanical classification:
Leeks are in the ‘onion family’ – Amarylldaceae.

Types and sizes:
  • Pot Leeks: Must have a blanched (white) area no longer than 150mm (6 inches) with no limit on the circumference.
  • Intermediate Leeks: Must have a blanched area of 150-350-mm (6-14 inches), with no limit to their circumference.
  • Blanch leeks or Trench Leeks: Must have a minimal blanched length of 230mm (9 inches) and can go up to 600mm (24 inches). The minimum length for blanch leeks is 350mm (14 inches)

The white blanched area of the leek is produced by depriving it of light. So as pot leeks grow deep in the ground, all their barrel is white. Most of a blanch leek grows above ground, so the blanched area is produced by tying sleeves around the leek which are extended as it grows. Light is kept out of the sleeve top with a soft filler (e.g. sphagnum moss).

Types of leeks
Seed firms list various ‘varieties’ or ‘breeds’ of leeks and new ones are always coming on the market. Individual growers who keep seed from prize-winning leeks could technically claim to have their own ‘strain’ or ‘breed’.
Examples in past years have been Yorkshire Green, Thirston, Cumbrian, Joe Jones’s, Sammy Dickinson's and Belsay Blues.

Parts of the leek
  • Roots which grow from the base.
  • Stem or barrel which is blanched.
  • Flags or leaves which are green.
  • Button (tight button or fast button) is the point at which the lowest leaf divides.

Measuring leeks
Leeks are measured in cubic inches. The figures needed are the distance from tight button to the root, and then the circumference half way between these two reference points. A table is then used to calculate volume.

Table used to calculate volume from lenght and circumference

Propagation Seeds
Leeks are biennials grown as annuals and they normally seeds in their second year. The leek is normally self fertilising. The seed head of a leek (or onion) is a complex inflorescence made up of many tiny seed heads. Each tiny flower produces a seed, which is easily rubbed out when the whole seed head is mature and dry.
The leek can be fooled into seeding in its first year by stress such as drying out. Producing seed uses up all the energy stored in the stem of the leek which goes very soft and thin.

It is possible to cross leeks by spreading pollen from one seed head to another. This will increase genetic variation and from this new mix, good specimens can be selected and then self fertilised in future generations to continue producing clones.

Grass leeks (pods, bulbils, pips)

A leek can be stimulated to produce these small structures which are genetically clones of the parent. The grass leeks(like blades of grass) produced by some pot leeks are real miniatures leeks.

A trick to get a leek to produce grass or pods is to shave off all the tiny flowers and then as a survival response the leek will produce its other forms of reproduction.

The grass leeks are removed and planted out in small pots.

Young leeks grown on in greenhouse

Planting time
Blanch leeks are usually the first to be planted – as early as mid April with pot leeks be held back till about June. With leeks now being 3 or 4 times the size than they were 50 or so years ago – they require a much bigger final pot say 10 to 12 inch pots so the leeks go into the trench at an earlier date usually early to mid May, if ‘well hardened off’ they will take no hurt. They can be set out earlier than that if grown in ‘poly tunnels’. You could not really move them into bigger pots than 12 inch because you would not have the room or be able to afford the compost to fill pots as big as that.

Leek trenches (beds)

A trench of 6.5m x 1.5m (21 feet x 5 feet.6inches ) will grow 22 leeks.(double row of 11 leeks). It is best mounted 450mm (18 inches) above normal ground level.
Working depth is normally (1metre – 3feet)

Pests and diseases
When leeks were grown outside, there were few problems, but with the advent of tunnel houses and controlled environments, pests and diseases have increased. The main insect pests are thrips and red spider mites and various rusts are the main plant diseases. Both of these require the use of chemicals. Organic solutions are now widely available but there is considerable debate about how effective they are.

Soil nutrients needed
Modern gardeners who grow vegetables have the advantage of soil testing services and a wide range of compound fertilisers with varying ratios of the main nutrients – Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) to correct any deficiencies in the soil. The pH (acidity) of the soil is also important and this is best kept from 6.5-7.5. It is corrected by applying lime.

Preparing leeks for show
Leeks are dug as late as possible before being ‘benched’ at the show. Allowing time for preparation, this means they are normally dug the day before the show or the morning of the show depending on how many vegetables you are showing. After washing in water, making sure the roots are not damaged, some growers wash them in milk and leave them standing in milk overnight before the show.

Identification of vegetables for show
Leeks and onions – a tape and lead seal is placed through the neck.
Other vegetables – cattle ear tattoo pliers are used to puncture the leaves but most clubs now have their own club rubber stamp which uses indelible ink so the grower ID cannot wash off the leeks in wet weather

Leek dimensions
In the early years when a stand consisted of three leeks (it changed to two leeks around 1960), a good single leek would measure around 30-35 cubic inches. Then by the 1970s to 1980s, a good leek measured around 60-80 cubic inches and after the 1980s, a good one measured 90-110 cubic inches. These statistics are for local shows such as Bellingham, Otterburn and Woodburn.

In the National shows and those in and around Tyneside at Newcastle, Blyth, Cramlington and Ashington for example (as well as in county Durham), leeks are benched at another level altogether, reaching as big as 170 cubic inches PER LEEK!

When the first 100+ cubic inch leeks started to appear at shows, they were of poor quality. They were coarse, knobbly, corrugated etc, and not a pretty sight. But as time went on, through selective breeding and stringent judging standards, large leeks of very good quality are now exhibited, remembering of course that in competition, many a smaller good quality matching stand of leeks have beaten a much larger poorer quality stand.

Leek Pudding recipes
From Bellingham Womens' Institute Recipe Book 1969, price 25 shillings

  • 8 oz self raising flour
  • 1 level tsp salt
  • 4 oz suet
  • Water to mix
  • 6 oz leeks trimmed and chopped

  • Mix dry ingredients, add enough water to make a dough that leaves the sides of the mixing bowl clean and dry.
  • Roll the suet pastry into an oblong, spread over it the chopped and seasoned leeks.
  • Roll up and tie into a floured cloth.
  • Place into a pan of boiling water and boil steadily for 1 1/2 - 2 hours.
  • Excellent to serve with cold joint or black pudding.


Short pastry
  • 12 oz flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 6 oz lard or, 3 oz lard and 3 oz margarine

  • 1 lb leeks
  • 1/2 lb ham or bacon
  • 2 eggs beaten with salt & pepper to taste
  • 4 tbsp milk

  • Wash the leeks and cut them into 1 or 2 inch pieces. Pour boiling water over them and leave for 5 minutes.
  • Drain off water. Make short-crust pastry. Grease a Swiss Roll tin, then line with pastry.
  • Cut the ham/bacon into small pieces and put a layer onto the pastry and add the leeks and beaten eggs.
  • Add seasoning.
  • Cover with pastry, sealing the edge well.
  • Brush with a little milk and egg.
  • Put in a hot oven for 20 minutes, then reduce heat, but allow plenty of time to cook through.


Send your questions to Tony at (

: (From David, in the Isle of Man)
Hi Tony, could you please advise how to obtain the pips to grow leeks as this is a type of gardening I have wanted to try but never have been able to. Many thanks.

Answer: As most seed leeks seem to produce grass now, more frequently than pips for some reason, it would be easier for you to use these grass leeks rather than pips. Here is what I recommend:

  1. Select the seed leek you want to breed from. This will be a leek left in the ground from previous year or a transplanted leek that has maybe done well at a show previously.
  2. There will be a stem with a small skin covered head at the end growing from the centre of the leek, which will grow longer throughout the summer.
  3. As it grows, the head will swell and eventually its covering skin sheath will burst showing hundreds of small flowers that will open. These need to be all cut off till the head is "bald".
  4. Over the next few weeks up till September/October pips or grass will grow from the head.
  5. If pips grow, then when they become bigger about the size of maize grains and loosen on the head they can be removed and put into a matchbox for when you want to sow them.
  6. It’s more likely the head will produce grass so when the head is thickly covered with the grass, maybe a couple of inches tall and before the tips of the grass go brown, then carefully remove them.
  7. A good tip is to cut the head off the stem, then slice it in half (cutting upwards) and put both halves into a bowl of water for a couple of nights, this will start the grass to root and they will push from the head a little, making it easier to remove them without damage.
  8. When removed prick them into a tray of multi-purpose or individual cells (see my pictures on the blog) and when roots appear, keep potting them on keeping temperature at about 12 degrees celcius.
Question: (from Kate Lewis in Canada)

I work for a woodworking and gardening tool company located in Ottawa, Canada. Our company, Lee Valley Tools (HYPERLINK "" has an extensive collection of antique tools. One of the tools we recently came upon is what I believe to be a ruler used for judging pot-leek competitions. (I have attached photos of the implement.) I was doing some research on this tool and came across your blog, HYPERLINK ""

I was wondering if you are familiar with such a tool? In addition, I was wondering exactly how the winning pot leek is determined. Is it the circumference of the root that is measured rather than the length? We are rather oblivious to such things here in Canada. Any information you have time to provide would be very much appreciated.

from Tony Wright
Yes it is a tool for measuring leeks; it measures the length of the leek and is called a hook. They are no longer used now but the modern ones are much the same.

On your hook the 6 inch point or arrow is fixed and is so because the maximum length of the leek is 6 inches and any leek over the 6 inches will be disqualified. The hook end at the bottom is placed firmly under the base of the leek directly below the "button", the button is the where the leek flags (leaves) divide.

You can then find the length of the leek by noting where the button is against the ruler i.e. 5.0, inches. The circumference is then measured by placing a measuring tape around the leek exactly halfway down that length ie 2.5 inches.

The size of the leek is then calculated in cubic inches by say the leek is 5.0 ins long X 11.0 circumference - in the calculating chart those 2 measurements would give the size of the leek as 48.14 cubic inches.

I think my photo will make it clearer to you, as you can see the latest measurer or caliper as it is called is virtually a sliding ruler that can be locked and makes it much more accurate.

Profile – Tony Wright

The Wright leek growing dynasty started with Archie Wright (1890-1968) at the Eals farm in Bellingham (pictured on left in his onion bed).

Archie was founding member of the Bellingham and District Leek Club and was followed on the farm and in the garden by his son Jimmy (1921-2005). Tony born in 1953 is the third generation of the Wright growers of champion leeks and other vegetables.

Tony didn’t follow his father Jimmy to farm the Eals and worked for the Northumbrian Water Authority for 14 years before being transferred to Kielder Water working as a Leisure Supervisor for 15 years. He took early retirement in 2008.

Tony is an authority on leeks and their culture (as well as other vegetables) with a mass of accumulated knowledge, which he is willing to share. He is a regular competitor and judge and has extensive knowledge of the history of the Bellingham Leek Club and can be contacted at

The photo on the left shows Archie Wright and Tony's father Jimmy Wright with the prizewinning results of their labours outsid the front door of the Eals farm in Bellingham.

Tony with the top prize winning leeks at Lanehead Leek Show in 2008.
Photo copyright by Helen Brown.

Bellingham & District Leek Show 2010

Members of the public arriving to inspect the exhibits at the show in the
Town Hall -the venue of many such wonderful exhibitions, and dances
after the show when the Hall still smelled strongly of leeks and onions.

The wide range of cups and trophies now available for competition,
many donated by the families of past members.

First prize pot leeks in the show - benched by John Herron -
son of former noted leek exhibitor Willie Heron.

First prize for collection of celery and blanch leeks won by Tony Wright.

Fourth prize for vegetable collection won by Tony Wright

The Dalton cup for the best onions in show won by Tony Wright


  1. From Bill Charlton, Coffs Harbour, Australia and formerly of The Croft Bellingham.
    My father in pre-war years used to grow leeks and onions but never seemed to get any good ones to show. But potatoes, beetroot and carrots as I remember he did show.

    Often about that time of year, Dad and us kids would go over the Eals farm and compare vegetables with Mr Archie Wright before the show started.

    I remember one year Archie had some good 'Curse Pink' potatoes and he chose six that he wanted to show. He told Dad to help himself and pick six that he fancied and show them too.

    Well come show day, there was a bit of an upset in the results as Dad got first prize and Archie got second! They both had a good laugh about it afterwards. Those were the good old days.

  2. Hi, could you please advise how to obtain the pips to grow leeks as this is a type of gardening I have wanted to try but never have, many thanks David, Isle of Man.

  3. This is a wonderful record of leek-growing and traditions in the north - Wonderfully detailed, thank you.

    Having been brought up in Ashington, and lived away for many years, I now find myself being assimilated into a long-standing rural Northumberland community and have joined our local pub's Leek Club, emboldened by the beauty of this year's show...

    If you don't mind, I would like to reference this fabulous article in my blog later this week? I'm writing about wondering what I've got myself into. I sense life may never be the same again! Many thanks, take care, Fhina,