I don’t get it. I just don’t understand why these
delightful alliums get so little culinary attention in this
country. Perhaps the reason is availability or quality or
heritage, but regardless of the reasons it too bad that we
ignore one of the tastiest and easiest to grow members of
the onion family. Well, now that you know my bias, lets get
down and dirty with leeks.
The soil and climate here are close enough to optimum to
allow you to grow leeks year round with no particular fuss
or babying. In fact, I have been experimenting with letting
the leeks do their own propagation for a couple of years now
– with considerable success yielding a constant supply
with little to no work. I do have to keep them weeded –
Just the basics
There are two categories – summer and winter leeks.
Summer leeks mature in 70-90 days, taste great when picked
young (plant them densely and eat the thinnings) and they
are more cold sensitive that winter leeks. Winter leeks mature
in about 120-150 days, taste great when they reach pencil
size are very cold hardy and blue-green in color.
The most common “grocery store” leeks here are
the Giant Musselburgh. I suspect because they travel and store
with less loss that more tender varieties. Speaking of storage
– did you know that commercial leeks are stored at 32
degrees F for 2-3 months? Or that you can store them in the
frig for about a month, where they will continue to grow,
diminishing their nutrient quality? But if they are growing
in your own garden, why not just store them in the ground?
The Dutch first settled Musselburgh, Scotland in the 14th
century. Tradition has it that the Musselburgh Leek was developed
there from stock acquired from France or Holland and used
to develop the Musselburgh Flag, probably late in the 18th
century, and variants of this variety eventually gave rise
to the London Flag (Weaver, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening,
When to plant
Just about any time when the seeds can germinate at 68-78degrees
F and the seedlings can grow with daytime temperatures to
the low 80’s. Fall is a great time to begin leeks either
directly sown or in flats for transplanting. If you plant
in late fall and don’t use row covers, the plants will
remain small but set good roots during winter and take off
when the soil warm up. With row covers you can be eating small
leeks in mid-winter. I also sow leek seeds in the Lima Bean
beds during summer where they have a shaded and cool place
to germinate and grow until frost takes out the beans. But
without a microclimate, leek seedlings will go dormant and
get stunted in the summer heat.
How to plant
Self-propagation tends to be messy and unorganized –
go figure, but it doesn’t require a lot of effort on
my part. It will yield a crop of unequal sized leeks since
the plant just doesn’t space its seeds well. Planting
in beds not rows works well for me since I sow seeds thickly
and eat the thinnings. If you want uniform and optimum sized
mature plants follow the commercial spacing instructions –
such as those on the seed packs.
If you are transplanting – trim off 1/3 of the roots
and 1/3 of the tops to reduce transplant shock and stimulate
root growth. I use a pencil to make a hole deep enough to
take the transplant up to the first leaf – do not transplant
them deeper than that. To make transplanting faster and easier
try seeding them in cell packs – four seed to a cell
and transplanting each cluster of four as one plant –
just increase the spacing between clusters to allow more root
room. You can also handle them 2-up or 3-up if preferred and
adjust spacing accordingly.
How to harvest
My method of harvesting depends on spacing and age. Early
on the young plants are pulled out to allow more root room
for the faster growing one. Later on the largest ones are
harvested by slicing down through the root mass around the
stalk with a sharp knife. That lets me remove them without
disturbing the smaller leeks nearby.
Growing your own seed
So easy to do, that there’s literally nothing to it.
Leeks are biennials and will normally bloom the second year
– unless planted early enough in fall to be vernalized
by winter cold temperatures. Then they will bloom the first
year. If you plan to save seed, grow only open pollinated
varieties and grow only one variety at a time or do alternate
day caging to control crossing. Flies are the major pollinators
so if you have more than one variety blooming at a time you
can end up with something else. However they will not cross
with bulbing and bunching onions or shallots.
Be patient. Leek seeds take a long time to mature –
so leave the flower head alone until you see the dark seeds
formed, then remove and dry it before cleaning the seed. Seed
will remain viable for 2-3 year in a dry, cool environment.
After cutting the seed head, leave that old leek alone and
there will sprout up a cluster of small leeks around the base.
Mature leeks form bulbs at the base that generate more leeks,
similar to garlic. So self-propagation is easy with both seed
and bulbs perpetuating the species.
To be continued
. . . .
That covers enough to get started planting and growing. Look
for more next month about companion planting and leek cuisine.
Till next month,
Master Gardener Intern
garden well - eat local