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Gawky onion or elegant ingredient? It's the leek. You can start some now.

It takes patience--four to seven months' worth--to grow leeks. But their mild onion flavor makes them well worth the wait for knowledgeable cooks. Prized as the key ingredient in classic vichyssoise, leeks can also be used in many other ways that capitalize on their subtle character. By growing your own, you can enjoy the advantage of harvesting as you need them, at the size you prefer.

You can now seeds from January through April in most areas (start in flats indoors if soil is soggy). In mild coastal areas, you can sow again in June for all and winter crops. Desert gardeners can sow seeds from September through mid-January.

Most gardeners prefer to start leek seeds in flats or containers indoors, since this gets the plants off to an early start and reduces potential hazards such as battering rainstorms, romping dogs, and hungry birds. And you don't have to be concerned about weeding around delicate plants or thinning crowded seedlings.

Fill flats with potting mix and sow seeds about 1/4 inch deep. Keep in a warm spot and don't let potting mix dry out. Seeds should sprout within about two weeks. Once seedlings are up, move flats to a bright, cool spot. Plants will reach transplant size about six weeks later.

Choose a sunny spot and prepare soil with plenty of organic matter such as compost, ground bark, or leaf mold. Dig trenches 6 inches deep, 6 inches wide, and 12 to 18 inches apart. Transplant seedlings as shown opposite.

If you are sowing seeds in place, pull about 2 inches of soil into the trench, then sow seeds about 1/4 inch deep. Thin crowded seedlings to 2 to 4 inches apart.

As the leeks grow, add more soil to keep the lower part of them covered. This keeps the long edible lower stalk tender and blanched. Don't add soil higher than the growing point (where leaves divide).

To harvest, you may be able to pull up leeks in very soft soil, but it is usually best to gently dig them up with a spanding fork. Leeks can stay in the ground once they have matured; they overwinter well in all but the coldest, snowy areas. If you allow leeks to remain in the garden during the winter, harvest them before they have a chance to develop seed stalks the following spring. Once leeks have gone to seed, they become tough and inedible.

If some of your leeks do produce flowers, you can take advantage of this to start next year's crop. Flower heads that have toppled often yield abundant seedlings, as shown above right. Once flower stalks appear above ground, leeks also begin producing bulblets (above left). These can be replanted elsewhere. Bulblets give you several weeks' head start over seeds. Cleaning and cooking

To avoid clogging the kitchen sink with dirt and foliage, slash off leaf tops with a sharp knife and strip off tough outer skin from the bulb end while you're still in the garden. Dunk briefly in a bucket of water or spray with a hose. Once in the kitchen, wash leeks thoroughly since dirt can easily work into the leaf joints.

Leeks up to 1 1/2 inches in diameter are excellent cooked whole (boiled, steamed, or braised). Try cooking very young leeks--about 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter--until tender, then serve warm or chilled with a vinaigrette sauce. You can use any size leek in potato-leek soup or vichyssoise; if you're using older, tougher leeks with woody cores, strain out any fibrous material before serving.
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Date:Feb 1, 1985
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