Keep the area free of weeds as the ramp seedlings grow and continue to keep the soil moist. Add more leaf mulch as the layer breaks down. Harvest the ramp greens to eat in early spring.
If you ever take a hike deep into North American forests, you may be fortunate enough to find wild leeks, or ramps (Allium tricoccum) as they are commonly known. Or, you can be even more adventurous and try growing them at home. Ramps, members of the onion family, have the flavor of onion but smell like garlic. Ramps take a long time from planting to harvest. With bulbs, you’ll wait two to three years. From seed, you won’t harvest your first ramp for seven years. Plant ramp seeds in late summer in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 8.
Scatter the ramp seeds randomly over the soil, press them lightly onto the soil and cover them with a 3-inch layer of whole or shredded leaves.
Choose a planting site for the ramp seeds. The ideal location is one that mimics what the seed experiences in the wild: a shady spot under a tree, such as birch, sugar maple, oak or beech, with lots of leafy organic matter on the soil. If you don’t have a location under a tree, agriculturists with North Carolina State University suggest building a shade structure.
Water the area to a depth of 6 inches and keep it moist at all times. Depending on the weather, the seeds will either sprout in the spring after planting or in the subsequent spring. If they don’t sprout the first spring, continue to tend to the area by watering consistently until they sprout in the second spring.
Remove weeds and other vegetation from the ramp bed. Use a hoe or rake to loosen the soil and add a 4-inch layer of compost. Use a hoe or garden fork to combine the compost with the existing soil. Rake the area smooth.
Collect ramp seeds when they are deep blue to black. Soon after the foliage dies, the flowers appear. Keep an eye on the flower as it dries up and the petals fall. The seeds are soon ready to harvest. Timing of the collection is critical because the seeds will fall to the soil and may be impossible to find. Clip the entire flower head when harvesting the seed, then separate the flower chaff from the seed.
Hardwood leaves provide the best mulch for ramps. Poor results have been obtained with pine bark and commercial mulches and they should be avoided until further research is done. The effects of mulching are numerous: decaying organic matter provides essential elements like nitrogen, much needed moisture is retained within the mulched area, and the mulch acts as an insulator to protect the plants in sub-zero temperatures. In addition, mulching helps to suppress weeds as well as protect newly sown seeds and seedlings from wildlife.
Ramps, Allium tricoccum or Allium tricoccum, var. burdickii, also known as wild leeks, are native to the eastern North American mountains. They can be found growing in patches in rich, moist, deciduous forests and bottoms from as far north as Canada, west to Missouri and Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennessee. In early spring, ramps send up smooth, broad, lily-of-the-valley-like leaves that disappear by summer before the white flowers appear. The bulbs have the pleasant taste of sweet spring onions with a strong garlic-like aroma.
Keep in mind that the growth period for ramps is limited to only a few weeks in the spring, during which time the plant is dependent on having adequate light, moisture, and nutrients for survival.
Ramps grow naturally under a forest canopy of beech, birch, sugar maple, and / or poplar. Other forest trees under which ramps will grow include buckeye, linden (basswood), hickory, and oak. A forested area with any of these trees present provides an ideal location for planting a ramp crop. Areas that host trillium, toothwort, nettle, black cohosh, ginseng, bloodroot, trout lily, bellwort, and mayapple should be suitable for growing ramps. If there is not a wooded area available to grow ramps, a shade structure can be erected over the planting site.
As one of the first plants to emerge in the spring, ramps were traditionally consumed as the season's first "greens." They were considered a tonic because they provided necessary vitamins and minerals following long winter months without any fresh vegetables. Traditions evolved around the annual gathering and preparation of this pungent plant. Throughout the mountains of the eastern United States, including many western North Carolina counties, annual spring ramps festivals are held. These festivals are major tourist attractions and are actively promoted by the communities in which they are held. The tremendous volume of ramps consumed at these festivals are gathered from the forests. In many areas, the annual intensive harvesting is seriously damaging the wild populations of ramps. Studies in Canada and Ohio demonstrated that ramps are very sensitive to how they are harvested. Years ago, gatherers would only take a small number of bulbs from a population. Now the demand for ramps is so great, the entire population is often harvested.