Leeks: A Good Vegetable for Northern Gardens

– Posted in: Recipes, Vegetables

This is leek soup weather. Most of the trees have dropped their leaves, and the larch are enjoying their final glory before they drop their needles. When the days grow shorter, when we’ve had several freezes (and even a dusting of snow), and when we finally concede it’s time to drain the hose and close down the storm windows on the last remaining screens–that’s when we begin to harvest the leeks.

More northern gardeners should grow leeks. Leeks appreciate cool weather and are not intimidated by frost. As a matter of fact, their flavor is improved by frost, so there’s no rush to get them out of the ground. My husband dug our leeks earlier this week, well after we had several hard freezes (20F) and the leaves had dropped from most of the trees. And leeks are conducive to so many recipes that are best at this chilly time of year.

Most recipes advise using only the white part of the leek, but I usually trim them where the leaves start branching, as indicated by the dotted line.

Most recipes advise using only the white part of the leek, but I usually trim them where the leaves start branching, as indicated by the dotted line.

We first started growing leeks because of a mistake. I had asked someone to pick up a bunch of scallions at the grocery store, and they brought home a bunch of leeks. I had heard of leeks before, but I had never cooked with them, so I flipped through my cookbooks (pre-Internet) in search of a recipe that could be made with ingredients I had on hand. I came up with this:

Potato-Leek Chowder

3 large leeks
1 1/2 pounds potatoes — peeled and diced
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
3 cups chicken broth
pepper — to taste
salt — to taste
1 1/2 cups skim milk
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley — (6 teaspoon dried)
3 ounces cheddar — grated

Cut the root end off the leeks. Cut the leaves off where they start to branch (see photo and caption). Slice lengthwise and then slice crosswise into 1/2″ pieces. Put these slices into a strainer or colander, and put the strainer into a large bowl. Fill the bowl with water. Lift the strainer up and down in the water to help clean the leeks. Leave them in the water while you peel the potatoes.

I use the French-fry cutting disk of my food processor to cut the potatoes instead of dicing them. It is much quicker, and the potatoes break down in the soup enough to fit on your spoon.

In non-stick large sauce pan, saute the potatoes and leeks in the butter for several minutes, stirring to prevent browning. Add broth, pepper and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20-30 min, till potatoes are tender.

Add milk gradually. Heat gently but do not allow to boil. Stir in parsley and cheese. I have to say it looks more appetizing if you use an orange cheese instead of a pale yellow one, but it will taste great in either case.

Recipe from Jane Brody’s Good Food Book, p. 322, with adaptations.

We liked this soup so much that we started growing leeks just so we could make it. Of course there are lots of classic leek recipes, such as Cock-a-Leekie and Vichyssoise.

How to grow leeks

Leeks are the first vegetable planted in the garden and the last one harvested. We (meaning someone in our family, but probably not me) start them indoors in the second half of February. For your own northern garden, figure two months before your last spring frost. We sow them in individual small cells. Once they sprout, make sure they get fertilized regularly with a weak solution of your favorite indoor plant fertilizer. You want them to grow both long and sturdy inside, so you can plant them deeply in the garden.

Plant them in your vegetable garden as soon as the soil can be worked. Note that this is not the same thing as as soon as the soil has thawed. You want the soil to have dried out enough so you’re not making mud pies. For us that winds up being early to mid-May, a couple of weeks before our last frost.

Your leek bed should be fully prepared before you plant, because you are not going to be messing with this bed again until harvest. Pull your weeds, incorporate organic matter, and make sure the soil is pleasantly moist, but not soggy or gummy. Now put two inches of hay on top of your prepared bed. (Straw would be even better, but we never have that. We can get old hay pretty easily.)

This is our dibble. It is about 10 inches long.

This is our dibble. It is about 10 inches long.

Get your dibble and make a hole through the hay and into the soil for each leek seedling. We press the dibble into the ground right up to the handle. If you don’t have a dibble, you can use a hoe or rake handle, and push it in about ten inches (25cm). Then drop a seedling down the hole. That’s it. Make sure some of the leek is poking out of the hole. You want about two inches peeking out, so if your seedling is too short, take it back out and put some soil in the bottom of the hole until the leek can peek. Or if it’s obvious that your leek is short, don’t make the hole so deep. The part down in the hole will be the edible portion. The part peeking out of the hole will be the leaves. The hay keeps the weeds down and the soil moist. The hole will gradually fill in as the season progresses.

The leeks are pretty much ignored until it’s time to harvest them. As I said, it’s one of the last things we do. You don’t have to dig them all at once. Just dig as many leeks as you think you need for your recipe, being careful not to slice into them. (We use a garden fork.) You do want to dig them all before the ground freezes solid. One time we forgot, and had to just about chisel them out of the ground. They were kind of slimy on the outside when they thawed, too, though the centers were still good.

If you have a root cellar or a pretty darn cold basement (the kind where you have to take precautions to keep your pipes from freezing), consider digging them all up and storing them down there. It’s a heck of a lot more pleasant to go down to the basement than to trudge through two inches of snow and a biting wind to fork them out of close-to-freezing earth. See the resources below for details.

Leek Resources

Leeks | DoItYourself.com – good overview for the home grower, including southern growing methods
Stocking the Root Cellar – general principles on cold storage, but not much on leeks
Commercial Leek Production – precise growing and harvesting instructions
Planting Leeks at Beside the Stream – another cold climate gardener’s planting method
Foiled Again by the Elusive Leek – Anne Raver can’t grow leeks, but she talks to experts who can.
Leek Recipes – a big long list.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

Comments on this entry are closed.

Kaytea October 26, 2011, 2:48 pm

I live in Newfoundland, it doesn’t get as cold or as warm as other parts of the country, and you can only grow plants outdoors a couple of months of the year. I have had success with onions and garlic before, looks like leeks might be worth a try too.

arwadoo February 5, 2011, 12:24 pm

I tried leeks in my kitchen garden in 2006.It is the easiest grown crop given an undistubed piece of land to grow as Kathy has nicely describes, leeks grow nicely.In Autumn harvest the leeks as and when needed .Deep fried leeks have a very pleasing taste and wounderful smell .

Ann Travers November 11, 2008, 8:27 pm

I’ve been celebrating leeks at this time of year as well. Just love them. Thank you Kathy for the excellent informative post here. Will print it out for reference.

I have a couple postings on my leeks (link above) but nothing as thorough. This is very helpful. And I’ll definitely try the chowder recipe with 3 of the precious few remaining. Sounds delicious.

Lynn November 10, 2008, 3:25 pm

Hi Kathy and thanks (again!) for the inspiration. With all winter to plan for next year’s veggie garden, leeks are going on the list for sure. I grew them once in Austin. I think I even have a picture, since I planted them next to an old metal tractor seat that I found, and they looked very sculptural together 🙂
It always makes me mad to have to pay for leeks by the pound in the shop, when you can’t use most of what they sell you–the greens. I don’t make my own stock, but I’ll remember that for the next time I get the urge to try.
Along with leeks, I want to do a lot of shallots. They are the best!

Kathy Purdy November 4, 2008, 3:32 pm

Truly, Frances, I am perplexed. I have never heard of leeks not growing. At least you are in good company. Anne Raver can’t grow them either.

Frances November 4, 2008, 3:22 pm

Hi Kathy, you have made a fine restaurant entry, I will take a bowl of the soup du jour. I tried leeks this year, starting them in the greenhouse in winter, like th onions, and like the onions they are still so very small. I even put them in a raised bed filled with good soil and compost. They look like green hairs! Any ideas other than too warm of a summer? I am leaving them, maybe they will grow into something edible at some point.

Vertie November 4, 2008, 12:23 am

Great timing on this post for me! I had just picked up some leek starters. Based on your tweet, I ended up separating them into individual plants. I’m not exactly sure why the nursery sold them in a clump.

Oh well, should be a good experiment.

Martha/All the Dirt on Gardening November 3, 2008, 10:57 pm

This year I had some success growing leeks from seed and was thrilled with the result.

We don’t have a large vegetable garden so I planted the little baby leeks all around the inside of the garden fence. It is sitll 80-degrees here so we have only harvested a few for specific recipes.

Thanks for reminding me to start seeds again in mid-Feb.
Great post.

jh November 3, 2008, 7:10 pm

Leeks are great. I also have started to collect kale and chard from my autumn garden and planted my garlic last week. I love when people come over and are astounded that I am still gardening in November in Colorado


kate November 2, 2008, 9:57 pm

This was a helpful post to read. I grew leeks two years ago and wondered why they didn’t do better. I didn’t plant them deep enough and also pulled them before our first frost. Now I’ll know better. I love using leeks to make soup but also use them in quiche and chicken stew.

Kathy Purdy November 3, 2008, 11:36 am

Kate, some people do harvest them before frost, using them as baby leeks. The flavor is much milder then, so they are used differently in recipes. I’d probably try some that way if I needed to thin them for some reason.

Beverly November 2, 2008, 3:44 pm

Neat! A lovely plant I’ve completely forgotten about. Having moved to 7000′, even though it IS Southern Colorado…it can get pretty cold here and the growing season is short. Yup…I’ll be trying leeks…I love ’em!

But…actually, I use more of the green than you do; kinda like scallions, no? (Stripping the dark green and leaving the soft, pale centers…leaves more leek for yer money! LOL)

Thank you for a lovely post!

Kathy Purdy November 2, 2008, 4:02 pm

Hi, Beverly. There is a point where the time it takes stripping the leaves as you do overtakes my willingness to spend time to save money. However, those tops are a wonderful addition to a stock pot, where their toughness is not a problem.

Kim November 2, 2008, 10:24 am

Maybe I’ll try these next year – that chowder sounds so good!

Lynn November 1, 2008, 10:38 am

UK garden friends were cooking some awesome food with their leeks and I made up my mind I would find out how to grow them. You saved me a lot of time. Thanks for the post, I’ll be ready for Spring!

Gail October 31, 2008, 11:38 pm

They do make a tasty soup! Potato leek soup is one of my favs….These guys would not like my clay soil! gail

Susy October 31, 2008, 10:38 pm

I’ll make sure I try some leeks next year. HM, I guess I’ll be needing some new raised beds to fit all my new veggies.

Sue Dawson October 31, 2008, 10:13 pm

I grew leeks one year many years ago that turned out great. When I tried them again, they didn’t do as well. We live in a different place, now, so you have motivated me to try again. I did have a great crop of onions this year. I grew 3 different kinds.

That recipe sounds great, too. Thanks for the very informative article!

Carol, May Dreams Gardens October 31, 2008, 6:20 pm

Leeks are one vegetable I haven’t tried to grow in my garden. Maybe I will try some this spring…

Kathy Purdy October 31, 2008, 5:35 pm

If you did grow them it would have to be as a winter crop.

Cindy October 31, 2008, 5:30 pm

I doubt I’ll ever be able to grow them but I just might try this soup over the winter. January’s a good soup month here!