The Basics Of Growing Leeks
Growing leeks is not much more difficult than growing most other vegetables. If you haven't tried leeks in your garden yet, by all means do so. This milder cousin of the onion is great in soups and with meat dishes. If you have the proper climate, and put in a little extra effort, you can grow a leek that is almost a meal in itself.
Growing Conditions - The main advantage or drawback in growing leeks, depending upon how you look at it, is that they are a cool season crop. They will tolerate hot summers, but you may not get the same quality result as you will in a cool summer environment. Although leeks are typically grown from seed, it's possible to get a jump start in hot summer areas by starting leeks indoors and transplanting the seedlings about two weeks before the last frost. The seedlings are quite hardy, but should be a couple of inches high when transplanted to best ensure survival. In some parts of the country where you go from winter to hot summer in a matter of 2 or 3 weeks, growing leeks can be a bit more of a challenge, but don't let that deter you. It may take a season or two to find the approach that gives you a superb yield, but it's worth the effort. Thin or transplant such that the leeks will be 4" to 6" apart, in rows at least 10" apart. Onions, celery, and carrots are very good companion plants for the leek. Leeks can be planted in the fall, and will overwinter in mild winter areas if properly mulched, but will generally not survive periods of extreme cold and snow. In mild winter areas, some gardeners sow a crop of leeks as the hot weather is coming to an end. Allow about 10 weeks from transplants to having leeks that are ready to harvest, and 12 weeks when planted from seed. Some summer varieties take less time to fully mature. It is a good practice to cut off the top portion of the leaves, about halfway up the plant, as the leeks are maturing. This encourages stalk growth, giving you a larger leek for the dinner table.
The leek grows much like an onion or garlic plant. Unlike onions or garlic however, the leek is non bulbing, and the primary edible part is the few inches of stalk from the roots, although the leaves are edible as well and especially good in soups, such as leek and potato soup. Leeks are a low calorie food and are a good source of iron, vitamins B6 and C, folate, and dietary fiber. Like onions and garlic, leeks grow best in a rich soil, and in a sunny location. The plants do need to be kept moist. If allowed to dry out too much they will not produce a quality product for the dinner table.
You can often find leeks in the grocery store that are quite large with long white stalks. These commercially grown leeks are often grown with the stalks covered either in mulch or sometimes in parchment. The stalks are white for several inches and, if grown properly, the entire white part is normally tender. If not grown properly however the stalks can become woody, even though white in color. The practice of wrapping individual stalks in parchment, to increase the edible portion of the plant, may have had something to do with the fact that many people regard growing leeks as being too labor intensive. This need not be the case. Just hilling soil around the plants will give you an inch or two of edible stalk, which will be plenty when you plant a row or two. Baby leeks for that matter are, like baby carrots, tender and delicious.
One of the joys of harvesting leeks is the discovery that they are excellent dirt collectors. The area in the stalk where the leaves start to form is usually at ground level, and over the course of the growing season, dirt will get in between the leaves. While a good rinsing will get rid of the dirt, and even better approach is to let the harvested leeks sit in a pan of water for a few minutes, allowing the dirt to float free before final rinsing. When you think about it, the dirt problem is one of the few bad habits the leek has, and it's only a minor nuisance.