May 3, 1998

Okay, quit whining. I realize summer isn't even here yet, despite the weather we've enjoyed this past week. But if you want leeks this upcoming winter, you've got to get things rolling now. And you should want them, since they are a nice alternative to those pungent onions you keep in the box on the back porch. Leeks are great in salads. Besides, what's leek and potato soup without the leeks?

Despite the title of this article, not every leek is a winter leek. King Richard, for example, is a nice summer and fall leek; fast growing, tender, and tasty. Varna is another popular summer leek that is grown more like a green onion. These summer leeks can last into winter, but if the temperature drops below about 20F they will die.

Today, though, we're going to concentrate on winter leeks. These are the hardy types that can take the worst of our winter weather without flinching. Not every leek is tough enough. Of those that are, many are tough in more ways than one! A truly great winter leek, however, is a pleasure both to grow and to eat.

Leek culture is not difficult, but it does take patience. Someone once used the phrase "slow, fat, stupid onions" to describe leeks -- well they weren't far wrong (although most other vegetables aren't that bright either, in my experience). When you're planning your garden you need to realize the leeks are going to be there for almost a year.

I've found it easier to start leeks out much like green onions. Two five foot rows across a raised bed give me more leek seedlings than I can use. Plan on getting the seeds in the ground sometime between early April and early May. Leeks tend to be heavy feeders. I work about a cup of a complete organic fertilizer per 5 row feet into the soil before sowing. Sow the seed fairly thickly in the row, perhaps 4-6 seeds per inch at a depth of maybe - inch. Leek seed, like that of most alliums, isn't very vigorous; so you might consider covering it with sifted compost or seed-starting mix instead of soil. Keep it moist until it germinates in a week or so.

For the first couple of months they are not going to be thinned. Keep them well watered and well fed (a side-dressing of bloodmeal might be a good idea when they are about a month old). You want them to grow tall and lanky, with the first leaf joint as high up as possible.

In late July the leeks will get transplanted to their permanent home. It's best to do this on a cloudy day, but in July that might not be possible. In any case, before digging up the leeks you should prepare their new location. My raised beds are about 10 feet long and 4 to 5 feet wide; I make 5 trenches, 6 inches deep and 18-24 inches apart, across a bed. The dirt you remove from the trench will eventually be going back in the trench, so it's easiest if it is hilled up on that same bed.

Now carefully dig up your leeks, shake the dirt off the roots, and place them in a bucket of water. To help minimize transplant shock, take a pair of scissors and whack off the top half of the leaves.

Place the leeks in the trenches, 2-3 inches apart and as upright as possible (do not fill them in yet!). The roots should be laying in the bottom of the trench; I don't bother spreading them out, I just have them all laying in one direction. Once the plants are in place, spread a cup of complete organic fertilizer evenly in each 5 foot trench. The fertilizer will be in direct contact with the roots, but that's not a problem. Next carefully push some of the dirt back into the trench, only filling it to the point where the leek's first leaf joint is above ground. Straighten out the leeks, firm the soil, and water in well. Note that it is darn near impossible to avoid getting some dirt into the leaf joints, so just do your best and don't worry about it.

For the first week or two you'll need to keep them well watered. As they grow bring more dirt in around the plants; it's somewhat like hilling potatoes. Always try not to cover that first leaf joint.

Leeks started in mid-April should be ready for harvest starting in September and October and continuing through winter, up until they bolt the following spring. You can pull them by hand, but they will occasionally break that way (especially once the soil is cold). I prefer to lift them using a spading fork. Leeks do not need any protection to make it through the winter, but a mulch of leaves or straw will let you harvest them during those cold snaps that freeze exposed soil.

You'll find it worthwhile to try growing several different leeks until you discover which you like the most. My personal choice is Durabel from Territorial Seed Company. Durabel is hardy enough that it grows slowly even through the winter, yet it is tender enough for salad use. It also doesn't bolt until late April, so it admirably fills your kitchen allium needs up until the overwintered onions are ready to be harvested.

I'll end with a harvesting tip. Leeks have a reputation for being "gritty". This is mainly due to the difficulty of keeping dirt out of that first leaf joint. I have found an easy way to solve this problem, though. After you've dug your leek, take that lowest leaf and just pull it downward, towards the roots. It will take the outermost layer with it, leaving you a nice clean leak with very little effort!


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This page was last updated November 18, 2013