Growing Leeks

As my friend Suzanne emailed a few years ago, “The obvious reason to grow a vegetable garden is to have fresh and delicious organic produce, especially the types that are either highly perishable or mysteriously expensive.”  She put leeks at the top of the list of mysteriously expensive vegetables.

Why are leeks expensive?  It might be their long growing season, four to five months from seeding to harvest.  That’s a long time to take up market garden real estate.  Or it might be the extra care it takes to germinate the seed and grow seedlings to the point when they
can be transplanted, six or seven weeks in my garden.  Then there’s transplanting them and keeping the soil hilled up around the growing shaft to encourage as much tender, white leek as possible.  Having someone else do this work for you helps explain the cost, but if you like lots of leeks and want to spend your time instead of your money, you can grow them yourself.

I wasn’t particularly successful at growing leeks until I adopted Steve Solomon’s method outlined in his Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades.  If you don’t have his book, now in its 6th edition, and you want to grow leeks, buy it.  It will pay for itself in leeks the first year.

Following his instructions for winter leeks, in late May I work compost into a four-by-four foot area in the garden until the soil is light and mark out five rows.  Then I plant the seeds a half-inch apart in shallow furrows, cover them with half an inch of soil and spread Reemay over the bed. Varieties I’ve grown the past few years are King Sieg and Bleu de Solaize, both from Fedco Seeds and both very winter hardy. This year I’ve also planted Carantan from Pinetree Seeds, an heirloom reputed to be winter hardy as well.

I water the bed often to keep the soil moist and in a week or two the thin green threads of leeks are folding out of the ground.  I keep them covered with Reemay until the shoots have several strong leaves.  By mid-July, they are nearly the size of pencils and ready to transplant.

Transplanting is where Solomon’s instructions are most valuable, and the process is enough fun that I look forward to it each year.  I’ve modified his instructions to include a board that supports the leeks as I set them out and helps prevent dirt from falling into the leaf joints.  Also, rather than running a series of rows perpendicular to the long side of a bed as he describes, I plant three rows parallel to long side of the bed because this pattern matches my irrigation tape.

The first step is clipping off the top half of the seedlings. Solomon explains that altering the ratio of leaf area to root reduces the disturbed root system’s demand for water and allows the plants to resume growing more quickly.  After clipping the tops, I gently dig a couple dozen plants, placing them in a small bucket and keeping the roots covered with dirt or water.

As the photo shows, I dig an eight-inch deep trench, prop the board against some bamboo stakes at a slight angle in the trench, and lay the leek seedlings along the board, spacing them at two-inch intervals marked on the board and stretching the roots out along the surface of the soil.  I cover the roots with about an inch of soil and press down gently.  Then I pull the board toward me, brush another inch of soil behind it and firm the soil down.  Then—this is the magic part—I pull up the board and the leeks are upright and clean.  I firm the soil around any that look wobbly and water them thoroughly.  The four-foot board lets me transplant twenty-four leeks at a time so I try to dig only as many transplants as I need for each board section.

Every week, I fill in the trench around the growing leeks, being careful not to knock dirt into the joints between the leaves.  In six weeks or so, the trenches are full and I begin hilling up the soil around the shafts up to the first leaf joint to blanch them white. By early October, the leeks will be ready to harvest and, even better, they will hold throughout the winter.

As I transplant leeks and care for them over the summer months, I imagine favorite winter meals: Pan-Roasted Pork Loin with Leeks from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen (1986), one of those simple but exquisite flavor combinations Italian cooks like Marcella Hazan do so well. And Leek Tart from Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Vegetables (1996): just leeks in pastry, no cream, no cheese, just a little thyme.  These and other leek-filled dishes are what keep me growing leeks each year.

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8 thoughts on “Growing Leeks

  1. No one could ever accuse a serious gardener of being lazy! Also, no one could accuse a serious gardener of being anything but profoundly educated and wise! To be successful, as you describe, requires experience, research, and hard work! I love leeks and always appreciate the sometimes 2″ of edible ‘white/pale green’ I get on my store-bought leeks! Someone is not carefully hilling up the leeks I’m eating, so home gardeners can most certainly have the advantage of more tender and ‘efficient’ leeks versus us folks dependent on the best organic and mysteriously expensive vegetables we have access to at our local supermarkets. Back to the farmer’s market and my CSA for some better options! Thanks for another wonderful post Debby!

  2. Hi Debbie,
    Thanks for all this great information about growing and cooking one of my favorite vegetables! Do you happen to know why it’s necessary to transplant the young leeks rather than growing them on in one spot? It seems like a plant would do best if not dug up and wrestled around with! Maybe it’s just a matter of finding room for them in the garden, which is an issue in my small space.

  3. Hi Lyn,

    Thanks for writing! I think one reason for transplanting leeks is that you can set them in a trench and gradually fill in the trench around the shaft of the leek, encouraging more of the white part of the leek that way. Of course, if you directed seeded them, you could mound soil up around the shafts and get the same result! That said, other reasons that I transplant leeks are that I’ve found that it is easier to get the seeds to germinate in a small, carefully prepared bed and that growing them close together in this “nursery” bed encourages the plants to get more leggy, giving me more shaft to set in the trench and blanch. There’s also, as you say, finding room for them. I start leeks in a small bed and by the time they are ready to transplant, a bigger bed is open, usually the bed where I’ve just pulled out the last of the sugar snap peas. It’s a nice way to use the pea bed and I’m left with the great soil from the leek nursery bed. This year I planted carrots there and they’re doing really well.

    Debby

  4. Thanks Debby for all the great tips! I’ve got some leek seedlings that are overdue to get transplanted and sugar snap vines that need to be pulled out so this is a perfect solution as to where the leeks can go!!! It’s always a challenge for me to find the right spots for planting new veggies in rotation.

  5. We go through mountains of leeks in our household, so I can’t tell you what a perfect post this is for us. I grew leeks last year but didn’t do a very good job of it…the quintessential example of what happens when one doesn’t do their homework. So now you’ve given me a good lesson plan to follow – thank you! And I just popped over to Amazon & ordered the Solomon ;>}

  6. Hi Debbie,
    Thanks to you we have tons of fava beens ready to harvest! Have just re-read your blog about harvesting, blanching and cooking the beans and we plan to have them tonight for dinner. I love all the info I keep reading on your blog and continue to tell others to go to your site! Thanks so much for continuing to offer so much info on gardening that helps us have wonderful harvests! I’m exhausted from picking strawberries but excited about the abundance we have this year!
    hugs,
    Anne

  7. Pingback: Transplant or Direct Seed? | Lopez Island Kitchen Gardens

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