Leek: Versatile and Low Maintenance

Leek is a long-growing and relatively low-maintenance vegetable with many culinary uses. It is a plant that you can install in early spring and easily put into the back of your mind until fall. There is one crucial step in mid-summer that I will get into, but other than that, it is a great low-maintenance vegetable.

Leek come in a variety of types, as illustrated in the photo above. Some have thicker, fatter white parts, some long and skinny and some have a bluish tint to the leaves. You may also find that some leek take longer to mature than others. I actually found a great seed source at Territorial Seed where they offer a Leek Succession Pack. This is a combination of 3 seed types, one called Zermatt which is a quick maturing leek, suitable for baby leek production. Hannibal takes a little longer than Zermatt, giving you your mid-season leek. The final seed in the pack is Bandit, which lasts late into fall. This excellent combination gives you leek throughout the growing season.

Growing Culture

Leek can take a full 120 days to develop depending on the variety. Growing leek from seed also requires an additional 10-21 days for the seed to germinate. Plan to start your leek seeds indoors in mid-February (for Zone 5) in order give them enough time to mature. If using a succession program as mentioned above be sure to label each variety and note when it will be ready. Leek grow quickly indoors with grow lights. Keep trimmed to a 6-8″ height while indoors to encourage root growth. If you will not be starting from seed, many seed companies will ship leek plants in early spring directly to you. They are ready to plant, and a great option when seed starting is not an option.

Plant outdoors in late April/early May (Zone 5). Leek can withstand cooler temperatures in spring, but cover if any chance of frost occurs. When planting leek, first prepare an 8″ deep trench . Mix in a well-balanced organic fertilizer or compost at the rate specified for the size of the bed. Plant your leek at the bottom of the trench and bury at least half the plant in the ground. Your plant spacing should reflect the size of leek that you want to produce. For smaller, thinner or baby leek, plant about 4″ apart. For larger, fully developed leek, give the plants 8-10″ of space. Water thoroughly after planting and place any necessary animal protection around the plants. Tip: birds may try to pull leek seedlings out of the ground when first planted. Some temporary fencing works well to deter them.

Now, for the most part, you can ignore your leek. Aside from regular watering, they don’t need much else. There is one critical step, however, to developing a long white, useable section of leek.

Remember that trench which you planted your leek into? Once your leek has grown to a height of 18-24″, go ahead and fill that trench in with dirt. This will occur approximately in late June/early July. Bury your leek but leave at least 4-6″ of leek leaves exposed at the top.

The remaining leek that you have buried will turn white underground, and believe me, the part above ground will grow to heights and widths of 2-3′. Leek grow without any fuss or hoopla. One minute they are tiny little grass like structures and the next time you look they have turned into rather large, unassuming plants.

I have found leek to be a good wind barrier for other, more sensitive plants. It works well to protect green beans, lettuce and peppers as a companion plant to block strong winds. It is sturdy and strong with stiff fan like leaves that act as a natural fence.

Harvest and Use

Harvesting leek may start as early as August and may go all the way till December. The variety you grow and weather will be the determining factors. Leek can survive in the ground down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, I’m not too crazy about the idea of harvesting anything in temperatures of 5 degrees, but hey, good to know. I generally harvest my final leek in milder October temperatures of 40-50 degrees. I harvest smaller leek throughout the summer as needed.

Always dig leek with a shovel. Attempting to pull them out will result in broken leek and half of it still in the ground (yes I have done this). Dig around the plant and gently loosen it from the ground. Shake off the excess dirt and place into a large container for washing. I recommend washing leek outdoors unless you want to clog your drains with dirt. Leek hold a lot of dirt in their roots and layers, so you want to remove that outside.

After washing off the initial dirt, trim your leek for storage. Trim the excess roots, and cut the large fan leaves at an angle just above the usable area of the leek.

After trimming, wash once more before bringing indoors. Store leek in the refrigerator. They will last about 2 weeks in the fridge when trimmed and clean. Or, like I did, you can use them right away for some tasty meals. To cut leek for use, you will first want to cut off any excess leaves. Then, slice the leek lengthwise, leaving the root end intact. Wash the leek, yet again, separating the layers as you wash to remove the dirt inside. Then you may cut off the root end and slice your leek as needed.

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Recipes

Here are links to 2 fantastic recipes I just made with my leek harvest. Leek are a wonderfully versatile vegetable. You can use them to add a mild onion flavor to any dish, but their real flavor comes out when they are slowly caramelized. Sweet, creamy and savory all at once, the flavor is really delicious.

Spicy Pumpkin Leek Soup

Lombo di Maiale Coi Porri (Pan-Roasted Pork Loin with Leeks)

Weekly Garden Update: December 10

Holiday Decor in the Garden

Even in a Wisconsin winter, there are still things to do in the garden. One of my favorites is creating beautiful containers of greens for the holiday season. You can go to most garden centers and find bundles of evergreens, red and white twigs, pinecones and other assorted decorations for your pots. I use a different approach. I cut everything I need from my existing landscape. By being a bit creative and resourceful, you can decorate your own holiday containers without buying a thing.

Look for the following plants in your landscape to utilize in your outdoor holiday decor.

Evergreens:

Yews, Junipers, Arborvitae, Boxwood, Pine, Cedar

Deciduous:

Redtwig Dogwood, Yellowtwig Dogwood, Birch, Winterberry, Beautyberry, Crabapple

Perennials:

Hydrangea, Lavender, Thistle, Rosemary, Sage

Lastly, the ultimate holiday treat is to grow your own Christmas tree. We started this Norway Spruce about 8 years ago with the intention to someday cut it down as our Christmas tree. That someday came this year.

Weekly Garden Update: November 5

A summary of the 2017 growing season in photos, enjoy!

 

Weekly Garden Update: October 15 Setting up a Raised Bed Hoop House

Gardening in a Wisconsin spring or fall can be downright frustrating. Temperatures fluctuate daily, sometimes hourly. We can go from summer like conditions to chances of frost, freezes or snow in no time; not to mention the winds, rain and hail that may accompany changing conditions. Patience with planting and even with removing protective debris is a must during this season. It is hard, however, not to take advantage of the warm days we have to do something in the garden.

One thing you can do to start your season early or extend later is to build a simple hoop house cover for new seedlings. Many vegetables thrive in cool weather as long as they are protected from harsh conditions.

Here is a guide to building a very simple hoop house for a raised garden bed:

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  1. Dig out the soil of the four corners of your raised bed
  2. Install hose clamps. I used 3/4″ hose clamps for 1/2″ PEX pipe. Whatever size pipe you choose to make your hoops, go a quarter inch larger for your clamps.IMG_0120
  3. Place your PEX pipes through the hose clamps. I used 5′ sections of flexible PEX pipe (found at your local hardware store) to make hoops which were 19″ high in the center. This particular bed is 2′ wide by 8′ long. Figure out the length of your pipe needed by taking your bed width times 2 and adding an additional foot or two so that you have some extra to work with. Place a hoop every 2 feet of length (this particular bed needed 4 hoops to cover 8′).

     

  4. Place the soil firmly back around each hoop
  5. You may plant your seeds at this time and then put your cover material over the bed. I used Grow Guard fabric and fastened it with garden clips which are both available from most online gardening stores. Use ground staples to pin down the fabric edges into the soil. Water will pass through this fabric so once you fasten the fabric on there is no need to lift it for watering.

     

  6. In a few weeks time, you will see this:

Weekly Garden Update: September 24

Garden Art = Functional Art

I utilize garden art in my yard for two purposes; 1. I like how it looks and probably more importantly, 2. It has a functional value in the garden. It can be used to trellis plants or provide support, keep animals away from crops and act as water catchers, sun reflectors or air diverters. I don’t always purchase garden art, however, many times I will find items in my garage or basement that make perfect garden art. Antiques or old items that may not have value indoors can often find a spot in the garden.

Tip of the week: before purchasing expensive trellises, bird baths or new plant containers, look around in your house to find old, unused items and try to find a valuable use for them in the garden.

Here are some examples of functional garden art:

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Weekly Garden Update: September 10

Good things come to those who wait…

 

 

Tip of the week: If you are waiting for your tomatoes to ripen and they just are not cooperating, you can pick them while still green and bring them inside. Either place them in the sun or in a single layer in a box together covered with a layer of newspaper. They will ripen fully.

Happy waiting for tomatoes to ripen season!

 

Weekly Garden Update: September 3

Happy Labor Day!

Tip of the week: Enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Weekly Garden Update: August 27

Time to cook dinner…

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So now that you have harvested all these lovely vegetables from the garden, it is time to cook, or preserve, your harvest. This week I will give you some tasty recipes (like the one pictured above) and ideas to preserve your herbs.

Tip of the week: preserve your herbs by finely chopping them and placing them in ice cube trays. Cover with water and freeze. Once frozen, move to a freezer Ziploc bag. Add herb cubes to soups and sauces for instant flavor.

ROASTED GARDEN VEGGIES (pictured above)

8-10 fingerling potatoes, halved

3-4 rainbow carrots, halved and cut into 1 in. pieces

3-4 beets, peeled and quartered

3-4 garlic cloves, peeled

1 large onion, cut into eighths

3-4 sprigs of fresh rosemary

butter or olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees, mix all the cut vegetables in a roasting pan. Sprinkle generously with sea salt and fresh ground black pepper. Top with pats of butter or coat with olive oil to your preference. Lay sprigs of rosemary on top. Cover with foil and roast for 40 minutes, stirring halfway through cooking. Remove foil and cook another 20 minutes. Enjoy!


 

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Basil ready for harvest

BASIL PESTO

2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves

3 cloves garlic

1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts

3/4 cup fresh grated parmesan cheese

3/4-1 cup olive oil

Cut and wash fresh basil leaves very gently so not to bruise them. Lay on paper towels to dry. Once dry, remove leaves from stems and pack into measuring cup. Add basil leaves, garlic cloves, pine nuts and cheese to a food processor. Slowly add oil while running processor, until the pesto gets to desired consistency. Enjoy as bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, or as a topping on pasta, vegetables or meat!

*Note: You can also freeze pesto if you do not want to use if right away. Place in vacuum freezer bags or other freezer safe container. Just be sure to leave out the parmesan cheese for freezing and add that when you defrost it for use.

Weekly Garden Update: August 20

The birds and the bees and the flowers…

What a beautiful week in the garden! I have plenty of photos of our companion’s in the garden, along with the beginning of the harvest season.

Tip of the week: Provide beneficial insects with plenty of brightly colored, open faced flowers: such as, zinnias, sunflowers, echinacea and black eyed susan. They will come and pollinate and give you a show that is unbelievable!

And the beautiful harvest…

And not to mention, the solar eclipse…

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Solar eclipse, 2 minutes after peak

Weekly Garden Update: August 13

I know it sounds crazy to start planning your garden for next year right now. We are harvesting, planting for fall and enjoying the sun; who wants to think about next year?

Tip of the week: Fall and winter will come quickly. You will need a plan in hand so that you are ready to take action as we move into fall. Your fall garden prep will determine next year’s success.

ADD SOIL AMENDMENTS

Fall is a great time to amend your garden beds. Now is the time to plan which additives you will need: compost, peat moss, wood ash, coffee grounds or any other soil conditioner that your beds may warrant and future veggies will need. Depending on soil needs you can add these accordingly.

  • Peat moss is good for making your soil pH more acidic, for plants such as blueberries that love acidic soil. It is also useful as a way to breakup clay soils.
  • Wood ash or dolomitic lime are great for reducing acid and raising soil pH.
  • Compost and coffee grounds are both great general purpose soil conditioners. They aerate, and create space in soil for nutrients to settle in those voids.

Putting these down in fall gives time for the soil composition to change so that by the time plants go in the ground, nutrients are in a usable form. Apply these at about 1 inch of thickness across the bed on top of the soil. Work in slightly just to incorporate them into the bed but allow nature to do the remainder of the work.

COVER YOUR GARDEN BEDS

As you begin your fall cleanup of pulling plants and cutting back perennials, don’t be so quick to discard that material. The plant material we pull up is the perfect cover to put right back on top of those same garden beds. If you do not have much plant material, leaves, straw or wood mulch also work well as cover. It is essential to cover your soil; do not leave it bare. The organic material breaks down over winter to return critical nutrients to the soil, and it also blocks weed germination. Use a safe source that you know has not been exposed to pesticides or disease as this can pass into your soil. Try to achieve 2-3 inches of thickness for each layer but don’t stress if you can’t. Use what is available to you in your environment.

One exception to reusing plant material is the nightshade family of plants. Tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and eggplants should be taken out of the garden and not reused. Why? because the nightshade plants are susceptible to diseases, bacteria and viruses which we may not notice visibly. To protect from spreading any unwanted disease, it is recommended to remove these plants completely. Any plants that had issues with disease, wilt, bacteria, virus or even insect infestation should not be reused as cover material in the garden as a general rule.

CREATE NEW GARDEN BEDS

Fall is the easiest time to start converting lawn or unused areas into garden spaces. Instead of taking on intense digging of turf or weeds, cover them in the fall with cardboard, newspaper or landscape fabric. The grass/weeds underneath will die and you will be left with a new garden bed. If you are using black landscape fabric, simply cover the area with the fabric and pin down with garden staples, bricks or stones. Fabric may be easier but it does not add any nutrients to the soil as the method below will.

  1. Put down a layer of newspaper or cardboard over the area you want to convert. Wet down if necessary to hold in place.
  2. Cover the first layer with leaves, straw, plant material or a combination. Wet down again to help material stay in place.
  3. Put something heavy, such as wood pieces, bricks, stones or large vines on top to keep material in place through winter.

The cardboard or newspaper will disintegrate for the most part over winter. You can remove any larger pieces that are left along with any large plant material that is left. You should be able to, however, hand till the materials into the bed in spring to achieve a deep layer of organic soil that is like butter; ready to plant.

SAVE SEEDS AND WATER

Fall is also the time to consider seed starting needs over winter. If you will be starting seeds indoors, it is really handy to have a store of rainwater available to water your seedlings. I keep 2 empty rain barrels in the basement which I fill with rainwater from my outdoor rainwater harvesting system every fall. I use that water for my seedlings that I start over winter as stock for plants next spring.

I have also saved seeds throughout the years, harvesting from plants that we really enjoyed or that performed especially well. Savings seeds takes a little timing, some patience and a warm, dry place to cure them. Some seeds will be inside the fruit, such as peppers and squash, others will be in the seed head of the flower, such as basil. Annual flowers, such as snapdragons, calendula, cosmos and African daisies are also good candidates for seed saving. Make sure to select open-pollinated (non-hybrid) plants for your seeds. In most cases, you can place the seeds on a paper towel or plate and place them in a warm location to dry out completely before placing into jars or envelopes. Make sure to label your storage container and put it into a dark, cooler location until ready to plant. Here is an excellent seed saving guide from the International Seed Saving Institute.