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Leeks
(Allium porrum)


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Cultivars

Leeks growing.

Leeks we think very nearly a great vegetable; but, whichever side of “great” they lie on, they are assuredly quite indispensable in civilized eating. Selecting varieties, however, is a daunting task. We probably went through more web-reading over this vegetable than any other. (That was written before we got to onions and peppers.)

The problem is that the many, many varieties of leek available even to home gardeners cannot be compared simply, because they fall into classes (one academic source, writing for commercial growers, distinguishes six such classes) based on their intended seasonal growth: some are meant to be harvested early and small, others to remain in the ground for, yes, well over a full year. Try the wrong kind (or the right kind the wrong way) and you’ll likely be very disappointed.

Cutting across the nice distinctions the commercial growers have to make, the chief difference between type classes is whether or not they’re intended to remain in the ground throughout the winter—that is, are they for harvest this year or next? The simplistic ”days to maturity” numbers in seed catalogues are at best crudely indicative (low day numbers, like 75 or 80, will normally mark cultivars not suitable for overwintering).

(The two types are variously referred to: summer vs. winter; short-season vs. long-season; seasonal vs. overwintering; and more. Common sense will tell you what refers to which.)

We will spare you the details of our on-line research and cut to the results. We found that for each class—short-season and long-season—there were two leading contenders, with little to choose between for each pair. Those varities (all open-pollinated) are:

That is not to say that all other types are inferior. It is to say that the four above seemed to show up most often on the more trustworthy-looking sources. If you hve other ideas on types, don’t think we are naysaying them.

Why leek types (or, for that matter any vegetable types) once immensely popular just sink out of sight is unclear. Certainly in some instances the vanished types have been superseded by newer types with somehow superior qualities, but quite often it seems more a matter of fashion than anything—and often, years later, the vanished types are ”rediscovered” to much hoopla. An example is the St. Victor, a “selected strain” of the famous heirloom cultivar “Blue Solaise” cited above, which has vanished from U.S. (but not U.K.) seedmen’s catalogues. Perhaps it’s the pressure from sellers of hybrid seed, who hate OP crops (because with hybrids you must buy their seed again every year). Late add: we see one seed house in Canada offering St. Victor leek seed, and they say they ship to the U.S.

Planting

Here’s a too-little-known secret about leeks: you only have to grow them from seed once. Yes, Virginia, you can regrow leeks from root cuttings: grow one once and, with a little care and luck, you can keep regrowing it year after year. We will first proceed with how to grow a crop, which you need to do once anyway, then return to how to regrow them.

Timing

Leeks can be direct-seeded, but the most common approach is to grow them indoors as seedlings—up to a fair size—then transplant. Virtually all guides to leek growing (and all seed catalogues) give DTMs (“days to matturity”) that are counted from transplanting and do not include the time to develop seedlings prior to transplanting; that development time can be as much as 6 to 8 or even 10 weeks, so a leek type advertised as “70 days” could actually be something like 120 days from initial seed sowing.

Growing advice usually says something like “start seed indoors 10 to 6 weeks before the last expected spring frost”, or, more vaguely, “about six to eight weeks before growing season or in early spring”; yet another says “4 to 10 weeks before the average date of last frost”.

What we, at least, glean from all that is that dates are not super-critical. Taking a longer run-up to transplanting sems the best idea, so we are transplanting larger and sturdier leeklings; remember that even leek transplants, if reasonably sturdy, can withstand light frosts, so if we get them in a tad too early, no problem. The last-frost date in our climate is in early May, so if we work back, say, eight weeks, we get roughly mid-March as the time to sow our leek seeds—but, given the ranges typically stated, any time from about March 1st to April 10th should work. You need to ascertain your garden’s first expected frost date, but if it’s like ours, we suggest that mid-March date for sowing.


Starting Seedlings

Here are the directions the University of Wisconsin gives for developing seedlings:

Sow the seeds thinly and evenly 1/4 inch deep in moistened soilless potting mix and cover them lightly with vermiculite or sand. Keep the soil temperature at about 70°F until the seeds germinate. Move the seedlings under grow lights or into a very bright window. Thinning the seedlings will encourage more rapid growth but it isn’t necessary if you keep them well fertilized. When the grass-like seedlings get to be 6-7 inches long, cut them back to 1½ – 2 inches (you can use the part you cut off as you would chives). Harden off the plants before transplanting into the garden starting in late April or early May (the plants will tolerate light frost).

That cutting-back is a somewhat controversial practice: some sources, like the one just cited, recommend it; others warn sternly against it. But if you do cut them back (it supposedly encourages them to grow more vigorously), you obviously have, at some point, to let them grow out, because you don’t want 2-inch-high transplants.

Try to find extra-deep flats for your leek seedlings, as leeks have massive root systems and need room to develop. Note also that at least one source says “Growing the transplants in garden soil [as opposed to potting soil] allows them to become big and husky much faster.”


The Bed

Leeks prefer a sunny position in light, well-drained soil, but will apparently succeed in almost any ordinary garden soil, even including heavy clay. But why challenge them? Make sure you dig the soil rather deep and well; even mix in a little sand if you have distinctly clay soil. As they grow to some depth, well and deeply spaded soil—typical of a raised or deep bed—is best, and provides, besides looseness, the aeration and drainage that they like. Moreover, they don’t require but do thrive on rich soil, so add in some organic material when preparing the ground. A pH of 6.8 to 7.0 is best, though not crucial.


Transplanting Out

The informal gauge for transplanting is always “when they’re about as thick as a pencil”—by which time they might be anywhere from perhaps 8 inches tall to 18 inches tall. Take the biggest seedlings for transplanting (that’s why we seed a few extra). Be sure to harden off the seedlings for a week (or even two) before actually putting them in the ground.

Space leek transplants at 6 inches in a deep-dug bed. One common method of transplanting is to dib (poke a hole in the soil with a tool called a dibber, or use the top end of a hoe or rake handle) to—recommendations vary here—3 to 8 inches deep (we’d use 5" to 6"), then place the seedlings in the holes and do not fill in the holes with soil—let soil get gradually washed in by rain or watering. Pour some water into the dibbed hole before placing the leek into it, so you don’t have to disturb the roots right away.

Some sources suggest that closer spacings can be used. Here’s one good tip: Leek leaves consistently emerge opposite each other, directly above the previous leaf. That means that if we set our transplants out taking care that the leaves of each are parallel (“like rungs on a ladder” as one source says), we will keep the leaves from growing into each other while making the best use of available space, light, and air circulation—and possibly allow spacing closer than 6 inches, perhaps even down to 2 inches. (We wouldn’t risk that close a spacing, but the adventerous might experiment.)

(There is another not uncommon method of transplanting—trenching—in which one excavates a small trench then lays the transplants into it; use your own judgement, but we like the dibbed-hole method.)

Growing

General Points

For the first 7 to 10 days after transplanting, keep the soil constantly moist, watering as frequently as required; with their extensive roots, leeks need about an inch of water per week. One source says that after that period, the leeks can be left alone and nothing but a prolonged drought can harm them—they will, from thereon out, grow like weeds. Other sources say to water uniformly to maintain vigorous, uniform growth, and tender stalks. In any event, lighter soils call for more frequent water applications, but with less water given per application, than heavy ones (and vice-versa).

It is wise to mulch the leek bed well (straw works fine) to help hold in the moisture and, later on, to keep the ground from freezing hard.

Avoid fertilizing winter leeks after about mid-August, as such feedings would make them less cold-hardy.

John Seymour remarks that, while leeks are said to be subject to all the pests and diseases to which onions are liable, he himself never heard of a leek’s being harmed by anything except someone’s pulling it out and eating it.

“Blanching”

It is a common practice to gradually hill up soil around the stalks as they grow; that forces the leaves ever higher up, leaving more of the desired stalk, and blanches the stalk (also considered desireable). Be aware, however, that such blanching, though it makes the stalks slightly more tender, also causes a material reduction of minerals and vitamins in the end product. Moreover, that practice is at the heart of the famous (or infamous) advice to wash harvested leeks super carefully, even cutting them into small chunks “to get all the dirt out”. But if you don’t pile dirt on them to begin with, that kind of fanatic attention to washing is unneeded.

(An American living in France for several years writes: “Then I recalled--through the fog of 7 years in France—how American cookbooks are always talking about the need to thoroughly wash leeks to remove all traces of the dirt that is always lurking between their leaves. Are American leeks particularly gritty? Or is it the squeaky-clean American paranoia about any trace of soil in an age when ‘baby carrots’ for most people means lathe-turned carrot shapes soaked in chlorine bleach and packaged—always packaged—in plastic? In France, a few grains of grit are usually to be found between the tops of the leaves, and that’s it. Nothing that a quick rinse under the tap won’t take care of!” And later: “Transplanting allows you to set the seedling much deeper than it was originally growing, eliminating the need to hill up for blanching so often referred to in American growing guides. Hmmm, maybe this tedious hilling up procedure is why…commercially available ones are so dirty in the U.S. They’re throwing soil on top of them!”)

Make your own choice, but we do not believe in “hilling up” around growing leeks.

Harvesting

To harvest leeks, always arm yourself with a garden fork: they have formidable root systems, and you will not be able to pull them up by simply yanking on them. Take a knife into the garden too, to cut off the roots for regrowing, which we discuss a little farther on.

Bigger, thicker leeks are more fibrous but still delicious and never strong in taste. You can reduce their fibrosity by peeling off the first few layers.

Summer Leeks

Summer leeks can be pulled whenever you want some and are happy with the sizes you see. To reach full growth, they typically want about ten or eleven weeks from transplanting. In principle, you can leave them in the ground till it’s about to freeze; but leeks must be harvested before they send up seed stalks or they will rapidly become unpalatable (trhe warning sign is if they start to turn brown). Thus, it is wise to harvest summer leeks more or less when they have had their alloted growth period.

Summer leeks keep, but not for long periods. If they’re all you”re growing, you need to freeze them; frozen leeks stay good for 10 to 12 months.

Winter Leeks

Winter leeks do not bulb or go dormant in the fall: they just continue growing, steadily if slowly. Harvest is, therefore, largely a matter of choice (of course, if you are really overwintering them, they should not be harvested till well into the following spring). And though the emphasis is always on the stalks, do recall that the leaves make excellent (and nutritous) additions to soups and stews.

Regrowing

Basically, when harvesting you cut the leek away from its root system (or vice-versa, however you prefer to think of it), then re-plant those roots. In time, a whole new leek appears.

Recommendations on how much root to leave vary from half an inch on up; but one source said: “A couple of experiments show the importance of the length of the basal part cut off for a swift regrowth. It is recommended to start the regrowth with basal parts of at least 4 inches.” Another said: “If you are harvesting leeks from your garden, leave the root in the soil. Use a knife to slice the base of the stem. Keep watered and you’ll have a new leek in far less time than growing from scratch.”. Here are links to a couple of pages with more detail: How Do You Grow Leeks from Cuttings? (Easy Guide) and Okay, so leeks regrow. When/how should I replant them?.

Note that this free ride may not keep up forever—possibly only for an extra second season. But you can always let a few go to seed; you may have to re-start the process, but at least you won’t have to buy new seed annually.

(That sort of trick actually works on quite a few vegetables, notably scallions).

More

Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:


Odds and Ends

Biology

Leeks are members of the Amaryllidaceae (amaryllis) family, and are closely related to onions, chives, and garlic. Although grown as an annual or biennial, they are a true perennial, perennating by means of small lateral growths and often developing a roundish bulb at the base of the main growth.

History

Leeks are common throughout Europe for as far back as we have records of food plants. The Romans called it porrum, a term retained in its present “scientific” name (our modern word “leek” comes from the Anglo-Saxon leac), and believed that the very best leeks came from Egypt, where they had been known in earliest Biblical times: indeed, the Bible states how, during the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness, they longed for the onions, leeks, and garlic they had had in Egypt. Nero is reported to have been nicknamed Porrophagus (literally, “leek-eater”) because of his inordinate appetite for leeks, which he apparently thought would improve his voice; Hippocrates prescribed leeks for curing nosebleeds. The Romans were responsible for the spread of leeks throughout Europe and into the British Isles—Chaucer’s storied pilgrims dined on leek soup. By 1775, leeks were being grown in America, by the natives as well as the colonists.

Envoi

The leek is the beloved symbol of Wales; it was displayed as a national emblem as early as 1536, and Shakespeare, in Henry V, mentioned such displays as an ancient custom. And Gallifreans find it useful.


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