By Sara Malone, Sonoma County Master Gardener
The first time that I grew leeks I bought a six-pack of tiny green shoots that looked like six little patches of rather rangy turf grass. I grabbed them (along with every other vegetable on the nursery stand) when in the throes of an attack of spring fever that had passed by the time I got around to them a few days later. I realized that I had no idea how to plant them so mercifully did some research first and learned that each one of those ‘grass’ blades was a separate leek plant. My friend was not so lucky. He planted each tiny lawn in its entirety and they choked each other out in no time. So the first thing that you need to know if you are going to plant leeks is that each six-pack of tiny shoots holds several hundred leek plants. If, as I did, you plant them all, you will learn to use leeks in almost every dish imaginable.
Leeks, or Allium ampeloprasum var porrum, are a member of the same family that includes onions, chives and garlic. The leek is a bit nobler than its relatives – it is, along with the daffodil, one of the national symbols of Wales. Leeks are actually biennials that we grow as annuals for culinary use. They are a cool-season crop here in Sonoma County and can be planted in early spring (March-April) or fall (Sept). I have had some success planting them through the winter, but if the winter is particularly harsh or rainy they will not do well if started then. Leeks need a long growing season – about 100 days to harvest, although there are a few early varieties – so make sure to get them in by the end of April at the latest.
To start your plants, prepare your leek bed as you would most other vegetable beds. Leeks are heavy-feeders and like a weed-free spot generously enriched with fully-composted organic material. It is important that the soil is moisture-retentive. Tease apart the seedlings and plant each one separately, about 6“apart in rows 12” apart. For well-blanched stems (most recipes call for only the white and light green parts), make holes about 6” deep and plant the seedlings in each. You can also plant them conventionally – about 1” deep, and then mound up soil around the plants after they have grown a bit. Mulch after planting (I use alfalfa hay which is seedless and a good nitrogen source, as well as an effective mulch). You will barely be able to see the shoots through the mulch, but they will grow rapidly.
Water regularly – do not allow the soil to dry out – until they are well-established, and then continue to keep moist until harvest. Leeks are generally ready to harvest when they are about 1” in diameter, but check the specific variety that you planted, as size at maturity can vary. They can remain in the soil for quite a while after they mature – if you can’t use them right away you can either leave them where they grew or remove them and heel them in someplace else. They do not store well out of the ground.
Leeks are much more versatile in the kitchen than they get credit for. As noted, virtually all recipes call for the white and light green part only (the dark green parts are great for stock), and they can be used in many of the same ways that we use onions or shallots. They can also be roasted, grilled or stewed like root vegetables. Add them to stews or roasts the way that you would use carrots or onions. Slice, sauté and puree them and use as a flavoring for a sauce or stew base. (They make a great addition to chicken pot pie, for example, as a flavoring for the basic white sauce.) Vichyssoise, the famous leek and potato soup, is traditionally served cold but is delicious hot as well, and if you planted some chives when you planted the leeks you can chop a generous handful of chives for a garnish. I think that my favorite way to use both my garden leeks and chard is to combine them in a tart. Chopped, sautéed and added to the egg and cream tart filling, they bake up into a wonderful lunch or dinner main course, which I like to enjoy with a green salad that comes out of the bed next to the leeks!
Leeks can be purchased in starts at many North Bay nurseries such as Cottage Gardens in Petaluma or Harmony Farm Supply in Sebastopol. They can be planted in most parts of the County in the spring and the fall.
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners