Leeks, Size Does Matter!… and so does shape.
See also, How To Grow Big Ass Leeks!
So I heard that in Wales they have these leek growing contests to see which dude can grow the biggest leek. I wish they had those contests here, ’cause my leeks are hung like horses. People ask me- “Steven, how do you grow your leeks so big?”. Following is my take on the vegetable known as the leek and how I now grow them.
First off, there are lot’s of leek varieties out there. There seem to be two basic classifications of leeks, tall and short. Not all the tall leeks are skinny and not all the short leeks are fat, but it seems to tend that way as if the plant had only so much to grow and was guided either out or up. I used to grow the short kind as they are much more common and there was this whole thing about how you are supposed to dig a trench (which I did) and bury manure in the bottom (which I did) and then as the plants grow fill in around them with the dirt from the trench (which I did) and then maybe put some toilet paper tubes around them to help keep the dirt out (which I tried). Using this method you are supposed to eventually harvest a long blanched leek from deep in the earth carrying little or no dirt in the leaves. I was disappointed in the results. For one thing, if there is any dirt down in the leek then you still have to wash it out and it’s pretty hard not to get any in a short leek. The toilet paper tube thing seemed pretty useless. Secondly, the whole trench preparation and filling in thing is a pain in the ass.
Enter the tall leek! This astounding innovation was clearly borne of some intelligent culture which must have preferred length over girth. A family member gave me the first tall leek seeds which she had saved from an unknown variety. The advantages were immediately clear. When you bring a tall leek in from the garden for dismemberment all that is necessary to use the vegetable immediately is to cut off the bottom plate with roots, peel off a few outside leaves and cut off a short portion of the top. Very little dirt makes it into the tops of the leaves since the plants are so tall besides, there is plenty of dirt free stem to use before reaching that section. Because we grow only the tall type, we rarely end up washing leeks at all. In the tallest varieties, I’ve gotten up to and over 24 inches of clear clean stem by stripping off a few leaves and lopping off the top and bottom. But wait, there’s more. The tall varieties grow sheathed in their own self blanching casement of old leaves so there is no reason to plant them deep which means no more trenching and in-filling. Just why the short varieties still dominate in popularity is not entirely clear to me, but I’m thinking that there might be a few reasons. For one thing, I think the shorties might be more cold hardy. That is definitely a concern and one which I will address further along here. Another is that the short types tend to look pretty and tidy on the shelf. The tall leeks are often lanky and whippy at the top while the short flag types tend to have stiffer more shapely leaves arranged in a nice flat fan. Also, there is cultural preference. If these folks over here have always grown leeks and the pictures of leeks on their altars of leek worship and their statues of statesmen and cultural heroes holding leeks all show stubby flaggy specimens then I guess the notion and form of a “proper” leek is pretty well set then isn’t it!?
I began to order every allegedly tall leek variety I could ferret out in the seed catalogs. My own preferential method for growing leeks, dictated by the local climate, has been to start early, plant early and over winter them in the ground eating them through march. This plan works here with almost any variety since the climate is very mild the temperature not usually dropping below 20 and generally pretty well above that. I have had some leeks suffer tissue freezing damage when it has gotten very cold, but only a small percentage of the plants have to suffered so far. I’ve also had the plants wilt and fall over a bit when the soil freezes. This temporarily happens to many plant species that are actually quite hardy because with frozen roots they can’t take up and move water around their vascular system. The leeks recover Ok, but when they are in the floppy state they don’t stay upright and never re-straighten. Since I only save seed from plants that are healthy and shapely at the end of the winter, I’m selecting for strains that can endure these conditions. Adaptation to local conditions and personal gardening styles is one of the many benefits of saving your own seed. In trialing varieties I pretty much selected for length, but at the same time I was selecting for girth as well since the proportion between length and girth can only stretch out so far before the plants start falling over. The winner was Bulgarian Giant, a leek that is especially tall while still being capable of achieving an impressive diameter. The last year I did variety trials we taste tested 3 or 4 leeks and were happy to find that the Bulgarian giant also tasted the best. I have not however done extensive comparative taste testing, so there may be a much better tasting leek out there. Still, taste isn’t everything and the cultural advantages and even the novelty of the impressive size does count for something then doesn’t it?
I just transplanted the third generation of my saved seed in an ongoing attempt to refine Bulgarian giant into a handsome monster adapted to local conditions and possessed of both size and girth. From the looks of this years best 8 leeks I think it might be working. Seed growers grow large amounts of plants to save seed from, but they are growing seed for money, so how thoroughly can they cull out the plants to refine the gene pool? I probably planted 125 or more leeks this year and selected only 8 for seed and only a few of those are really completely exemplary. I’m ideally selecting for height, straightness, girth and a good casement of leaves that gathers abruptly at the top to hold it all together.
So here is the cycle.
Plant leeks in a flat by sprinkling the seeds on the surface and sifting 1/2 inch of soil over them. Start as early as January in the greenhouse or a sunny window- no later than mid February. Do not direct seed. Seeding in a flat allows planting of the biggest seedlings only, the first step in seed selection. I know since I one year planted the tallest seedlings on one end of a bed and planted successively shorter ones as I went along. They more or less retained those proportions as the season progressed.
Plant out in the ground on about 8 inch centers. I don’t currently dig my garden beds, so I just stab a trowel into the ground, pull the soil to the side, set the leek in and push the soil back. I do tend to trim the roots shorter so that they are easier to plant. You don’t want the roots to curl up in the hole and end up pointing upward (known as J rooting a plant).
Fertilize from the top with whatever. I usually use urine when they are young, and quite a bit of it. Diluted 50/50 urine is hard to beat as leek fertilizer since it is a little imbalanced toward nitrogen. Leeks can take a lot of nitrogen and seem to thrive on it. When the plants start getting bigger, to where I’m starting to think about eating them, I don’t want to be pouring pee down into the leaves, so I just start to top dress with whatever I’ve got, compost, seaweed, grass clippings and other weed free green stuff. As I harvest the leeks I peel off the outside leaves and drop them on the bed. Also, if I have a handful of ratty leaves pulled off some greens plants I’ll drop those on too. The mulching effect of all this is also very helpful in conserving moisture and keeping the soil cool and friable. The plants will be there for a long time and if a good mulch of stuff is maintained there will be some compost left on the soil for the next crop when the leeks are finally cleared off. Resist the temptation to peel off the dead leaves as they form a “case” that holds the leek together and keeps it upright and blanched inside. Trimming the dead hanging leaves short is fine, just don’t peel them off the stem.
Leeks prefer a cooler climate. During the summer, they aren’t at their best, but they still make Ok eating. I start to cull out the small ones for eating as soon as they are big enough to bother with. I suppose if I lived in a hotter climate I might resort to growing them under a light shade cloth to see if that would make them happier, but I prefer to not pamper plants if I don’t really have to. Water though is really essential to growing decent leeks. Maybe not any more than most plants, but enough. When the weather really cools off and rain brings abundant unwavering moisture to the leek bed they really begin to thrive. The plants will gain in size through the entire winter and quality will improve noticeably by late fall. the leek truly is a winter vegetable or one for cool damp climates.
We harvest the leeks that are small, short, bent or otherwise undesirable in order of their greatest undesirableness. At the end of the season I’m left with the biggest tallest and most nicely formed from which I select the seed plants. These “winners” are dug up with a good wad of soil and moved to the end of a bed somewhere to finish out the cycle which takes until fall when the seeds are finally ripe. The flowers are pretty enough and pollinating bugs like them. The plants need some support while growing to seed or they will fall over. They also sometimes need a helping hand for the seed heads to come out of the top of the plant as it can get all tangled up in the lanky, floppy leaves.
Following this cycle I get to eat leeks most of the year. I have the satisfaction of planting my own seed which is also one more step toward being in control of my own food supply. I have extras seed to trade and give away. I don’t have to buy seed, and I have more control and influence on the form of my vegetables by more careful selection than is likely engaged in by large seed farms.
When it comes to leeks size does matter and so does form. In this household, come winter the mild leek is a vegetable rather than a condiment. With this attitude in place a leek can hardly be too big. With Bulgarian Giant and similar leeks (let me know if you’re growing something great) you can impress yourself as well as your friends and neighbors, clobber intruders, win prizes at the county fair and enjoy great leeks most of the year. In terms of yield/space/work ratio they are a great source of food and according to Ecology Action, even of calories. The leek is an under appreciated and under grown vegetable in America, but unjustly so as it is usually easy to grow and, if tall varieties are grown, easy to use. Soon I hope to begin breeding my own leek variety the funnest part of which will be naming it, so in about 6 to 10 years look for Edholm’s Big one, Purple Stallion, Redwood, Clobberer, Takea leek or something equally poetic or silly.
As to how to use leeks there are plenty of recipes out there. You can generally use them as you use onions though they often benefit from longer cooking and are mild so you can often use more. Some recipes and cooking notes are likely to follow eventually.
UPDATE: 12/19/2011 I was sadly unable to save seeds from the beautiful massive leeks in the pictures above because of a vicious attack of the rust. Ever since it has been plaguing my leeks. I’ve often had significant rust on my various onions, but never like this. I could try employing various home remedies such as spraying with vinegar, but pampering plants through a long season with continual maintenance is not really my style. I don’t know if the problem is due to the Bulgarian Giant’s being particularly susceptible, or if it is just the climate coupled with a really long growing season which allows the rust to gain a firm foot hold. If it is that the variety is particularly susceptible, this may prove to be a deal killer :( If anyone out there has experience with varietal susceptibility to rust in leeks, please drop some knowledge on us poor victims. If I can find a resistant variety, maybe I can cross some resistant genes into it… stainless?