Leeks in the Garden
Start early, harvest late, and enjoy
Throughout my family line mothers have taught their daughters the art of cooking with leeks, cabbages, and potatoes. Part of that lineage includes training the girls how to grow the crops needed for preparing those foods. As my mother taught me, I am now teaching my daughters the art of growing leeks. They understand that it is part of their horticultural training and necessary for the best colcannon and potato soup dishes. In our home, leeks are a treat with their sweet creamy texture.
Each spring, I start a batch of grass-like leek seedlings and plant them in rich, deep soil. They grow all summer with little care other than watering. Then, as killing frosts begin to appear at the end of the growing season, my leek harvesting begins. All parts of the plant are edible, but the dense roll of closely overlapping leaf bases is the tastiest part of the plant. Among the hardiest of vegetables, leeks are in season until the ground has frozen solid. If you have a thick enough mulch over the plants you can pull fresh leeks up until Christmas, as long as you can reach them under the snow.
Leeks belong to the onion family and are native to Europe where my family emigrated from. They have been cultivated since Roman times. There are numerous varieties differing in harvest times, cold hardiness, and length or size. However, only a few tried and true cultivars predominate the market. The most common are ‘Large American Flag” or “London Flag’ and ‘Giant Musselburgh.’ ‘Electra’ and ‘Catalina’ are also delectable.
Leek seedlings are rarely available at garden centers or nurseries, so plan on starting your own from seed. My daughters and I always have fun getting the pots and soil ready to start our leeks about ten weeks before our frost date. This adds to the growing season, and it is easier than starting the seeds outside. Besides it is always fun to watch the seedlings start rising from the soil in their little pots while the weather outdoors is still too nasty for planting in the garden. My daughters and I usually plant 5 seeds per cell. We plant them under ¼ inch of soil, and keep them around a 70 degree temperature for germination which takes place in about ten days. The first true leaf starts appearing within a week.
After the frost date, the leeks are transplanted into the garden. They are provided with full sun and fertile, well-drained soil enriched with plenty of mushroom compost and other organic matter. My family and I love leeks so much that we plant them in the vegetable garden and in the flower beds. Where some people might plant blue fescue as an accent grass, I plant leeks. I love their bluish-green foliage which I find strikingly handsome as a vertical accent with other plants.
The only problem that can really occur when growing leeks is wilt. Dry summers mean that the leeks need to be heavily mulched to retain moisture in the soil. They also need frequent watering. Without enough water, the leaf base will be thin and dry, instead of soft and tender. Irrigating can really help with this problem.
Leeks can be harvested whenever you are ready. Some have bases that thicken in July or August while others do not until later in the fall. If you are just using the leaves for seasoning in the way that people use green onions then just snip away. If you want the tender base, then pull the plant up in the fall when the trees begin to change color. If you leave part of the base attached to the roots, you can plant it in a pot to maintain indoors and have an early start on the next growing period. This will also provide you with a little leek greens for seasoning through the winter months, which my children love for their potato soup when it’s cold.