Ramps or wild leeks are usually just that…wild. They’re foraged in the early spring, by people who happen to know a “secret” patch, usually somewhere on public land. More often than not, your “secret spot” is the secret spot of a dozen other people, and even if each of you tries to harvest sustainably, those little ramps don’t stand a chance.
Wild populations are in decline, so much so that they’re now listed as threatened in many states. The good news is, they’re actually pretty easy to grow at home.
How to Grow Ramps (Wild Leeks)
To grow ramps, you need to know a few things about their life cycle. Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are a spring ephemeral, popping up in the woods before the trees above break bud. They do all their growing in just a few short weeks of the year, which means it can take around 7 years for them to reach maturity.
After 7 years of root growth, they begin to divide by and form new plants. They also send up seed stalks, sprouting in June after the leaves have soaked up plenty of sunlight. Each seedhead might stand for months before dropping seed, and the seed can take more than a year to germinate.
Once the seeds fall, they need a cold stratification period before they’ll break dormancy and germinate. For that reason, they’re often sown in the fall, but there’s no reason not to plant them anytime after June. That’s how the plants do it.
Ramps need shade to grow, or they’ll be outcompeted by grasses. They also need continuously moist, but not swampy soils. It’s best to plant them where maple, beech and hemlock grow as those trees require similar soils and provide good shade cover.
The book Farming the Woods, which provides detailed instructions for growing leeks and other wild forest edibles, says that they require at least 30% shade cover to survive, but they do better and grow larger leaves in denser shade cover.
The author’s instructions say, “to prepare a planting bed, remove debris and unwanted weeds and tree sprouts. Loosen the soil and incorporate organic matter such as compost and shredded leaves. Sow seeds on top, and gently press them into the soil. Cover with 2 to 4 inches of leaves.”
He also notes that moisture is critical, and though the soil should be well-drained and not swampy, it also should be continuously moist. The leaf mulch really helps with this.
Where to Buy Ramp Seeds
We were ecstatic to find that our local food coop sells small packs of ramp seeds from a local seed company called Earthbeat Seeds (formerly Milkweed Medicinals). They have an impressive selection of wild forest plants and medicinals as well, so I’m happy to find them.
There are ramp seeds and ramp plants are available on Amazon, but be sure to read the reviews carefully.
Given that the seeds can take years to germinate, there’s not much stopping a company from selling you small black rocks. If you’re buying ramp seeds, make sure you’re buying them from someone you trust, or at least someone that’s got plenty of 5-star reviews.
Growing Ramps from Transplants
Ramps can also be grown from transplants if you’re careful to take a large soil plug and not disturb the roots. Harvest about a cubic foot of soil from the edge of the patch, digging far from the nearest sprout you can see. Take the whole plug home and carefully plant it in a moist area under shade trees.
I’ve also heard stories of people that buy them from the farmer’s market and take them home to plant them. I don’t know how successful they are since the ramps are abused pretty heavily in the cleaning process.
Farmer’s market ramps usually don’t have many roots left, and they’ve been out of the soil for a long time. Still, I’ll give it a try this summer and let you know how it goes.
Harvesting Ramps Sustainably
Once you establish your own ramp patch, you’re responsible for harvesting sustainably. You’re not on public land anymore, and that little patch is your baby now. How many ramps can you harvest sustainably?
Initially, not much. Keep in mind that wild leeks need at least 7 years to grow to maturity. Before that, they’re not re-seeding and any you harvest will not have reproduced. Once they do begin seeding, studies show that you can harvest about 10% of the population in a good year without causing a decline. In a bad year, it’s more like 5%.
That’s a lot less than the 1/3 rule many foragers talk about. If you’re taking 1/3 of the plants in a wild area you’re causing a decline, and that assumes you’re the only one harvesting, which is likely, not true.