Leeks are a fascinating plant. They can be found wild throughout eastern and central North America but bear the odd name “ramps”, so I prefer, when discussing the wild kind: “wild leeks”. In Nature they grow in mature woods beneath the shade of the forest’s canopy. They are best harvested in spring when the entire plant is edible. The domestic leek, though, prefers to grow in full sun. Domestic leeks are a delicacy, none too hard to find though pricey. In Nova Scotia a typical grocery sells them for $5 for a bundle of three mid-sized leeks, perhaps two fingers thick and sixteen inches long. That is enough for one meal; two if you make them stretch.
Leeks, with their mild onion flavor and unique sweetness, are far and away my favorite vegetable. Combined with a few potatoes and some Swiss chard fresh from the garden, and a little chicken, beef or pork stock, or simply some sausages or ground bacon, they make wondrous soups that can’t be beat on cool autumn days. They are good keepers and can be left in the soil till the ground freezes. When brought in, simply suspend them someplace cool and dark, and they will keep for months. They last till spring in our root cellar. So, you can see many people would want to grow their own leeks. And since leeks are naturally virtually free of pests and disease, it would seem simple. But, alas, most persons that try cultivating leeks find themselves stumped when year after year their leeks grow no thicker than a pencil, even if started early indoors in seed trays and left in the garden till autumn. This causes most gardeners to give up on leeks after a couple seasons. Well, there is a skill to growing big, sweet leeks, but it is not too difficult to learn. In this article I’m going to share with you how we grow the monsters you see at the top of the page.
An Early Start
Leeks should always be started indoors in a tray, though if you have lots of room in your garden and are sure you can tell young leeks from wild grasses you may start them in a bed. This part leek cultivation is quite easy. Start the seeds in March or April, depending on how far north you are. Start in a tray indoors unless you are sure your area is warm and frost-free at this time.
Whether you start in a tray or outdoors, use good soil derived from compost that is loamy, rich but not overloaded with nutrient (lest you burn the young, fragile starts). Plant the sand-grain sized seeds about two fingers (one inch) apart and 1/8” deep (just dimple the soil with the tip of your finger and light cover it after). You really only want a dusting of soil over the seeds. In a single typical starter tray you can get a couple hundred going in this way. When all are planted, give the tray a good watering with a small pot that pours only fine streams of water so you don’t slosh around the tiny seeds.
When I tell people they need jigs to grow big leeks, they usually look at me incredulously. But when a leek is transplanted for the last time, it must be placed in a hole and it will only grow as thick as that hole is wide. Without a jig to brace the hole, if the soil collapses back in–and it usually will–the leeks will grow tall but skinny. My friends over in the UK don’t really need jigs so much because their soil has a lot more clay in it. The clay makes the soil firm so it can retain a hole. But land here in eastern Canada, especially in Nova Scotia, tends to run toward rocky and sandy. The soil won’t hold the shape of a hole. If you just punch a hole in the ground and drop your leek in, first rain that hole will fill in and the leek won’t be able to grow much thicker than a pencil. So to ensure your leeks grow thick as well as tall, you need a jig. Plus, with a jig you can set the leek deeper in the ground so more of it can blanch. The blanched area is the tenderest, best tasting part.
Each leek will need its own jig. But never fear—a jig is simple! The tubes of toilet paper rolls and paper towels make perfect jigs. When the time comes for final transplanting, usually about the end of June or early July, you will just punch holes in the soil, insert the tube, and drop the transplanted leek into it. The tube will just compost in the soil as the leek grows.
I find a single toilet paper tube (about five inches long) is perfect for making big, beautiful leeks, but if I have an abundance of them I will tape two together—end to end—to make extra-long blanched leeks. I would love to have access to paper towel rolls for making extra long, blanched leeks, as they are convenient, but to conserve trees we don’t use paper towels at the homestead. I do ask friends to give us theirs so we can recycle them to this purpose, though. One paper towel roll is perfect for extra-long blanched leeks.
Prepping the Growing Bed
Soon as the ground can be worked, it’s a good time to prep the leek beds. We make our leek beds two feet wide, eighteen inches deep and fifty feet long. You can make shorter beds if you will grow less leeks (we grow hundreds at a time on the homestead), but you should make sure your leek beds are two feet wide and eighteen inches deep. The width allows you to plant three leeks side-by-side, every nine inches, and the depth is to give the leeks’ roots room to grow. Leeks make enormous root systems and can only grow up so long as their roots can grow down and spread side to side.
Now here is the most important part. LEEKS MUST BE FED LOTS! Leeks, like everything in the onion family, need a lot of soil nutrient. When we prep the leek bed, we give that bed double the manure-based compost as any other bed. We also turn in blood meal and bone meal (you can use other organic sources for these nutrients, such as fish meal and ground shell). When planting time comes, we also dose the bed where the young leeks will go with a little manure tea. So, in a fifty foot long, two foot wide bed, we add some 500 lbs of compost, plus a pound of blood meal and a pound of bone meal, and at planting time about a liter of manure tea. in the small area the new starts will go.
It is important to add the compost and nutrients to the soil when you first till the soil, soon as the ground can be broken and worked. This gives time for the nitrogen to settle deep into the soil. As the leeks grow, the roots will reach the nutrients and benefit from them, but you don’t want the young, new plants to get too much nitrogen too soon—it will burn them.
A final note: be generous adding compost. As well as vital nutrients, adding compost makes the soil friable and loamy. When the soil is such, plants don’t have to invest their energy breaking ground; they can put it all into getting bigger and storing more nutrition. Additionally, friable, loamy ground very rich in nutrient will cause your leeks to grow almost free of cellulose. They will be edible from blanched bases almost to the leaf tips.
Soon as the last frost is gone (last weekend of May, usually, in Nova Scotia) it is time to transplant the leeks from the tray to the garden. They should be at least handspan high (four inches) at this time. Place all the new leeks at one side of your bed, just 4” apart from each other for now. Now, with more soil under them they will start to put on some height. Another transplanting will be necessary in a few weeks. Remember to dose the new transplants with a little manure tea for a nitrogen boost.
After about a month your leeks should be twelve inches or more high. This is a good time to transplant them for the second and final time.
Simply pull up all your young leeks. Do this by grasping them with one hand from the base firmly but gently so as not to rip or break them. With the other hand, slip a small trowel a couple inches under the leek. Hands working in unison, pull up while lifting up with the trowel. This will allow you to get most of them out of the ground whole and undamaged with the root systems intact. (Young leeks are very tender and can easily be ripped and broken. Learning to harvest them without damaging them takes a little practice. Even well practiced, you should plant a couple dozen extra to make up for the inevitable few that will be lost at this stage.)
Now, take the young leeks and cut off one half of their roots. Then set all the young leeks aside and prep the bed for the final transplant.
To prep the bed, get hold of a hefty stick. The stave from a hoe or shovel will do, or a branch, so long as it’s at least as wide as your tube jig. Punch a hole into the soil equal to the depth of your jig and slip a tube jig into each hole. Ensure no dirt spills into the jig as you do this.
When all the tubes are in place, take the young leeks and just drop each one into hole held open by the jig. Take a pinch of soil and drop it into each tube to give the roots a little covering. Then add a pinch of blood meal and a pinch of bone meal to each hole. Then get your watering can and give each newly replanted leek a good sprinkle. This sets and nurtures the roots.
Note that after the second transplant (and sometimes at the first transplant, too) the newly moved leeks will appear to go into shock for a few days. They will go limp, wilt over and seem to expire. Just make sure they stay adequately watered (but not soggy). Leeks are extremely hardy and within a week will bounce back. Even so, I’ve grown leeks for years and every time I see them through this “shock stage” it is a little nerve wracking. “But you gotta have faith . . . ”
Patience & Maintenance
Leeks are slow growers. They typically take some 150 days from the time of initial planting in a tray to harvest. But they are at least trouble free and unlikely to be bothered by insects or infection. However, leeks don’t create much ground cover so their beds are inclined to grow weeds. You should go over their beds a couple times per month and pull up any weeds, being careful not to disturb the jigs as you do so. If weeds want to disturb the jigs, just cut the weeds at the base of the stems. This won’t kill most weeds but doing it repeatedly will weaken their root systems, causing them to be unable to compete with the leeks.Make sure the leeks stay well watered but don’t over water. Their root systems are down deep in the soil and not prone to drying out. A good way to make sure they have adequate water is press your finger into the soil. The soil should feel dry to the second joint, and beyond that you should feel dampness. Not sogginess, just dampness. If it doesn’t feel damp, water.
The leeks should grow at least till September, and longer if you can let them. Basically, the longer they can grow, the bigger and sweeter they will get. Ideally, you should avoid harvesting until there is a hard frost because a good, hard frost really brings out their flavor. They are best left in the ground until it seems the ground will freeze or a deep snow will fly. But if before a frost they have mostly filled out the jigs you can start selectively harvesting the biggest ones. Before a frost, they will have a mild oniony flavor but not their characteristic sweetness.
Potato-Leek Soup—a Twa Corbies Hollow Favorite
1 mature leek
3 medium to large potatoes
4 cups milk
¼ cup butter
1 cup chicken or pork stock
2 sausages or 4 slices of thick bacon, cut into slivers
1 clove garlic
Chop leek and potatoes. Mince garlic clove. Put in pot and add stock and meat, and just enough water that it’s all covered. Boil over medium heat until tender (takes 30 to 45 minutes). Add butter and milk now and run through a blender until nearly liquefied. Add sea salt to taste and water till the consistency is as desired. Serves four. Enjoy!