A couple of years after we moved into this house, winter struck with an arctic trifecta: snow, ice and several nights of single-digit temperatures. The only vegetables I had growing in the garden at that time were leeks, so I pulled on every insulating item of clothing I owned, grabbed a shovel, and headed outside. I spent about an hour and a half chipping through the frozen tundra to get about thirty leeks out of their bed. If I had known then what I know now, I would have saved myself the trouble, tossed a sheet or a tarp over them, and been done with it. They are tough little alliums, those leeks, taking any manner of extremes in the weather with resilient, carefree ease. They are worth growing for no other reason. Reason number two is that leeks are ridiculously expensive in US markets, particularly if you want organically grown produce. A full plot in your garden may just increase your property value.
The best tips I have found for growing leeks came from a French gardening blog that I am sad to say disappeared some time ago. The long and short of it is that in the Americas, leeks are typically cultivated from seeds that sprout in the fields. To get the desirable long white stems, soil must be pushed up onto the plants by mechanical means several times during the growing season, and this action tends to result in a great deal of sediment lodging in the vegetable itself. In Europe, at least in home gardens, people plant little leeks that are about the size of a pencil. Use a tool to make a hole as deep as you would like your white stem to be, drop in a slender specimen with the leaves peeking out the top, and it will grow happily without taking on all that grit. Bonus points for setting your camera to have a decent depth of field…
I have seen young leeks for sale in Italian produce markets in bundles for the home gardener, so you may be able to convince your local farmers to take on the task of seed starting for you. Otherwise, just sow them in a pot, and when they are a reasonable size, dunk the whole apparatus into a bucket of water. The soil will sink, and the little leeks can be lifted apart without damaging the root systems. Grab your dibber, make holes in the soil, fill them with water, drop in a leek, press the soil firmly around it, then do pretty much nothing and you will have a decent harvest. If you want an excellent harvest, make certain that they get about an inch of water each week, and they will rival anything you can find at the produce market.
The trickiest part of harvesting is remembering how deeply everything was planted so the leek doesn’t get maimed with the shovel / trowel / fork as you pry it out of the soil. I give them a quick spray with the hose then cut off the leaves and excess roots for the compost bin. In the kitchen you can slit them open and rinse them in the sink in case a few bits of this and that found their ways into the tops. For super sandy specimens, slice in half lengthwise, then into rounds crosswise, and separate the leaf layers before washing in a pan of water. I’m pretty sure I learned that from Sara Moulton. The basket from your salad spinner is the perfect container for this technique, lifting the leeks out of the water and leaving the grit on the bottom of the bowl.
If you happen to need to harvest a large quantity of leeks at one time, I have found that they will freeze beautifully after a quick sauté in an oleaginous substance of your choice. Tip a container of frozen leeks into a pot, add in a few chopped potatoes, and pretty soon you will have a gorgeous soup. But now that I know they will keep just fine in the ground, Jack Frost notwithstanding, I may not put the time and effort into freezing them in the future. It is, however, time for me to start more seeds.