A GOOD bed of leeks is central to any winter veg garden. It may be the emblem of Wales, but the Musselburgh rules the roost.

Like our ancestors, we take leeks for granted. Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians used crushed leeks in lamb stews, as some do today. And thousands of years later, a 14th century Scots gardener had his wages stopped because he had failed to produce enough for the royal household.

But despite such royal favour, leeks were usually considered poor man’s fare and gradually dwindled in popularity.

Even though more acceptable in the 18th and 19th centuries, leeks remained pretty lowly vegetables. The 1852 Suttons catalogue listed 53 varieties of peas and an astonishing 25 broccoli, but only 2 different leeks featured: London Flag and Musselburgh.

These varieties, first developed in France, were quite different to earlier, smaller forms that were similar to our spring onions. Our large, broad leaved leeks are very probably much milder than their forebears.

This strong taste must have tainted the breath as garlic does, so may explain why people in the 16th and 17th centuries shunned them. But, given the foul odours emanating from every mouth, why would an extra ingredient make any difference? Why not just add to the mix?

Whatever the state of our breath, many of us want milder, sweeter leeks. Some go to ludicrous levels. They spend every waking moment cultivating utterly tasteless exhibition forms, designed to win fame and silverware at local or even national flower shows.

Most of us have a bit more wit, looking for decent-sized, but still recognisably tasty leeks, and this isn’t too difficult. Plant size depends on fertility, moisture and spacing. Simple planting methods provide some blanching.

Leeks grow under almost any conditions, but do best in moist, weed-free ground. I also give a 10m2 bed two barrowloads of good compost. When planting, I use a dibber – the sawn-off top of an old spade handle – to make a 15cm deep hole for each leek. I plant 25-30cm apart and fill each hole with water to settle in the 20cm tall seedlings.

Closer planting leads to small specimens and much more prep. work in the kitchen. Like everyone, I grow more leeks from seed than I need. So I line out and close plant the leftovers to make brilliant baby leeks – the gourmet’s delight.

And life’s too short for excessive blanching: I’ve never heard of a method that doesn’t drive a gardener to an early grave. My fat green leeks would never grace a show bench, but they pass the taste test.

For very long white supermarket-style spears, you need to plant in a 30cm deep trench, filling as plants grow or space rows widely enough to laboriously earth up as you’d do with potatoes. And after all that, you’d need to remove the gritty soil between leaves before cooking.

How hardy are leeks? Summer and autumn harvesting varieties come nice and early and are rarely robust enough to withstand frequent frosts. Tough old Musselburgh, that’s been around for nearly a couple of centuries will take most winters in its stride.

Look at the colour of your leeks to see whether they should be finished before the worst of the weather or sit happily till spring. A Belgian study showed that the darker, the bluer, the leaf the hardier it is. Pale green leaved leeks gently collapse and rot in frost.

The dark ones contain more chlorophyl and a wax covering than paler shaded ones. They also have a higher sugar content, glucose, fructose and disaccharides, and this gives the sap greater frost protection.

Plant of the week

Helenium ‘Butterpat’ has rich yellow flowers that add sunshine to your borders when skies are grey. Growing to 60-80cm it is bushier than many heleniums and won’t need staking. A bee magnet.