Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum
The leek looks like a steroid-fueled green onion. It’s considerably fatter than a scallion, at one to three inches wide, and about twice as tall. But it totally wears the same outfit, albeit in a bigger size.
It is in fact related to onions, offering a mild, sweet, onion-like flavor that is used to season any number of dishes – more on that later in this article.
Leeks are a cool-weather crop, with an ideal growing-temperature range of 55-75°F. Like collard greens, they appreciate a frost or two for better flavor development.
Most varieties are hardy to Zones 7 or 8, though some types can tolerate cooler weather. We’ll offer some specifics shortly.
The plant is a biennial, though damage and dieback due to a hard freeze will make it an annual.
The topmost, leafy green part of the plant is called the “flag,” and the white part is usually called the “stem” or “stalk,” though botanically speaking these are misnomers. The white part of the plant is technically a tight bundle of leaf sheaths.
Ready to dive in to the fascinating world of the leek? Here’s what’s to come in this article:
What You’ll Learn
It’s time to get growing!
Cultivation and History
Leeks are native to the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. They were cultivated in Egypt more than 4,000 years ago, and enjoyed by the workers who built the pyramids.
As well as being a staple in the diet of ordinary people, apparently the emperor Nero was fond of a leek or two, eating them almost daily to strengthen his voice. The Greek physician Hippocrates is thought to have prescribed this vegetable as a cure for nose bleeds.
Leeks make an appearance in what is regarded as the world’s first cookbook, “Apicius de re Coquinaria,” (“On the Subject of Cooking”) compiled in fourth- to fifth-century Rome. The recipe collection includes several for leeks, most of which showcase it not as a seasoning for other foods, but as a vegetable to be enjoyed on its own.
It is thought that the vegetable spread across Europe and to the British Isles by the marauding Romans. European settlers brought the vegetable to North America.
For reasons that are not completely understood, the vegetable is today the national emblem of Wales and is worn proudly on St. David’s Day – a holiday to honor the country’s patron saint.
You can grow leeks from seed or, like the pineapple, propagate it from kitchen scraps.
Start seeds indoors in pots or seed trays. Scatter seeds on top of a rich potting mix, and then cover them with a scant dusting of soil.
You can expect germination within five to 12 days.
Or you can direct sow outdoors, as long as air temperatures are below 77°F and above 55°F. The optimal temperature for germination is between 70 and 77°F.
Seedlings will be ready to transplant when they’re six to eight inches tall.
Harden them off by moving them outdoors for a few hours each day, gradually lengthening the time spent outside each day for about a week.
When you’re ready to transplant, remove seedlings from the soil and gently separate them.
Create narrow holes in your prepared bed that are about half as deep as the seedlings, from the root to the top of the stem.
The holes should be narrow, not more than an inch in diameter, and can be made by poking a dowel or ‘dibber’ into the ground – as opposed to digging a hole with a garden spade.
They should be spaced 6 inches apart in rows that are 1 foot apart.
Set the seedlings into the holes; some of the green part may be below the soil surface, and that’s okay for this plant.
Fill the holes with water, but do not backfill the holes with soil. The soil will gradually crumble in, but it will be loose, allowing the leeks to swell to a plump diameter as they grow.
You can also start a new plant from the rooted bit at the end of a leek stalk.
Simply cut off and use the top, leaving at least an inch of stalk at the end, with the roots intact. Place this bit in a cup, add water to cover about half the stalk, put it in a sunny window, and soon you will have more greens shooting up.
You can also use toothpicks to suspend the cutting in water, as you would with an avocado pit.
Once the top part has started to show new growth of 2-3 inches, you can plant it out in the garden. Alternatively, keep it in the water to continue growing and harvest straight from your windowsill!
How to Grow
Leeks prefer rich, well-draining soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. They need a minimum of eight hours of bright sunlight daily.
Many varieties require a long growing period of 120 to 150 days, but newer cultivars may require as few as 90 days to mature.
With a shallow root system, leeks need about an inch of water per week, so track your local precipitation rates and irrigate if it doesn’t rain.
Mulch the growing area well.
The white part of the leek is the most desirable for cooking and eating, being tender and less fibrous than the green. Therefore, gardeners often hill the dirt around the shaft to prevent that part of the plant from making chlorophyll and turning green.
Alternatively, you can fashion a sheath out of cardboard or other porous material to wrap around the stalk as it grows. It needs to be opaque but still allow for some airflow, otherwise the leek may start to rot.
About midway through the growing season, side dress the growing area about six inches away from the plants with a balanced fertilizer such as a 10-10-10 NPK mix at a rate of one cup for 10 feet of row.
Leeks are highly tolerant of cold. Depending on the variety, they can take temperatures down to 5°F or so, and a frost or two is said to improve their flavor.
But you definitely want to pull them before the ground freezes.
If you live in a place where you can overwinter leeks, consider that they will probably bolt in spring if they’ve been exposed to frosts and then the weather warms up.
If it’s their second year of life, they’ll bolt regardless, being biennial.
So pull them before the weather gets too warm, or let a few bolt for seed saving purposes. The round purple, lavender, or pink flowers are quite attractive, and after they go to seed, you can harvest and save the seeds for planting next year.
To do this, pluck the pods when they start to crack open. Place them in paper bags to dry, then shake the bags to separate the seeds from the chaff.
If you store the seeds in a cool, dry place, they should remain viable for up to three years.
You can eat the leeks after they bolt, but they’re not very good.
- Eight hours of full sun is required for a quality harvest.
- Cover up the lower part of the stems to produce more edible stalks, and less green growth.
- Side dress with a balanced fertilizer midway through the growing season.
Cultivars to Select
As referenced throughout this article, a number of leek cultivars are available, all with various enticing qualities.
This heirloom variety is hardy and will overwinter in mild climates. ‘American Flag’ grows to 20 inches tall and 1.5-2 inches thick. It has thick, blue-green leaves.
‘American Flag’ matures in 130 days. Find seeds in a variety of quantities from Eden Brothers.
Good for planting in early spring, ‘Early Giant’ has a shorter maturation period of 98 days. This heirloom variety is known for its consistent size and great flavor.
Eden Brothers sells a number of quantities of seeds of this variety.
Autumn Giant Leek
This tall heirloom grows as tall as 30 inches, with stalks that can reach three inches wide at maturity. ‘Autumn Giant’ is ready to harvest in 135 to 150 days.
Get packages of about 300 seeds from Seeds4planting via Amazon.
This adaptable hybrid grows a 12 to 14-inch white shafts with dark blue-green flags. ‘Lancelot’ grows well in many zones, and matures in 75 days.
Packages of 72 seedlings of this cultivar are available from Burpee.
Managing Pests and Disease
Leeks, unfortunately, are impacted by a few insects and several types of fungi.
Keep an eye out for these insect pests:
Leafminers (Lyriomyza spp.)
These tiny , 1/8-inch flies are generally yellow, dark gray, or black, or a combination thereof. They leave thin, white, winding trails on leaves. You might also see white blotches on leaves.
The fly lays its eggs in the leaf, and the larvae feed on the leaf’s interior.
Use neem oil to get rid of these pests.
Onion Maggots (Delia antiqua)
The tiny white larvae of this 1/4-inch gray fly emerge from eggs laid on leek leaves or in the soil, and then bore into the plant. They grow to about 1/2 inch long, using their feeding hooks to tear up the plant.
This is damaging in and of itself, and the damaged plants are also more susceptible to other pathogens, such as bacteria.
Leaves of affected plants turn yellow and the stalk rots.
Prevention – such as through crop rotation – is the best way to prevent an infestation.
One a plant is impacted, it must be dug up and destroyed.
Thrips (Thrips tabaci)
Yellow or black dots on plants may be a symptom of thrips. Another sign is leaves that turn silver or gray, or leaves that twist and die.
Thrips are small winged insects that damage plants by sucking fluids out. Control them with insecticidal soap, neem oil, or spinosa, a biological pesticide.
Leeks may be plagued by a number of types of fungi, all of which can be treated with a commercial fungicide.
Good airflow and proper planting techniques and watering practices, as well as diligently ridding the beds of errant weeds, can help to protect your plants.
Here are the primary culprits:
Rust (Phragmidium spp.)
Rust is a fungal disease that presents as orange pustules on leaves.
Botrytis Leaf Blight (Botrytis squamosa)
This fungus is characterized by small white lesions ringed in light green.
Damping Off (Fusarium spp.)
Seedlings that grow slowly and then wilt and die may be a sign of damping off. Root tips of affected plants may be tan, yellow, black, or pink. Learn more about this disease here.
Downy Mildew (Peronospora parasitica)
Purplish-gray fuzzy growth on leaf surfaces may be a sign of downy mildew. You may see pale spots on leaves, followed by widespread leaf yellowing and collapsed leaf tips.
Pink Root (Phoma terrestris)
Stunted plants with undersized shafts may be a sign of pink root, which also causes roots to turn light pink and then darken to purple. The roots may be transparent and water-soaked.
Purple Blotch (Alternaria porri)
Purple blotch presents on the flag or stalk with small, water-soaked lesions with white centers. These blotches enlarge and become brown or purple, with yellow edges. Foliage may die.
White Rot (Sclerotinia cepivorum)
White rot can stunt growth, causing yellowing of leaves, and eventual death of all foliage. You may see a fluffy white growth at the base of the plant.
Most leek varieties are fully developed when the stems grow to be a minimum of one inch in width. Some smaller varieties, however, mature at one-half to three-fourths of an inch in diameter.
Check your seed packets so you know what to look for. A good quality leek should have a firm, white shaft that’s more than three inches long.
Leeks can be harvested whenever they’ve reached their desired size. Leek tops do not die back as the plant matures, unlike with onions and shallots, so you can’t rely on that marker.
Simply twist and – gently – pull leeks to harvest them. Or you can dig around them if the soil is dry, and lift them up. You can trim flags to a more manageable length for storage, if you like.
Store leeks in an airtight plastic bag in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator; they’ll stay fresh for about a week.
In really cold areas, there’s a longer-term storage option:
After harvest, leave the roots attached, but cut the flag back to about an inch. Place stems root-end down in a box and fill it with sand, vermiculite, or sawdust. Keep the packing moist, but not waterlogged, and store in a cool place, where they will keep for about eight weeks.
You can freeze these veggies too. Wash them thoroughly (more on this shortly), slice them, and blanch for one minute in boiling water.
Blanching helps vegetables to retain their color and nutrients, and it destroys enzymes that can cause spoilage.
Drain the blanched slices, dry them, and place them in zip-top plastic freezer bags for storage. They should keep for 3-4 months.
Recipes and Cooking Ideas
In the United States, leeks are used considerably less often than other alliums, which is unfortunate. They have a lovely, light oniony flavor, and offer good nutritional value as well. These vegetables are rich in manganese, vitamin C, iron, folate, and vitamin B6.
Before adding leeks to a recipe, clean them thoroughly. Look for dirt in between the layers of white sheaths, and be sure to get all the grit out. You may have to slice the leeks lengthwise and soak them briefly in cool water before rinsing thoroughly to accomplish this.
Another tidbit to reiterate is that when cooking with leeks, you only use the white and light green parts. Cut off the dark green leaves and add them to the compost pile.
Perhaps the most well-known recipe in the US that features leeks is vichyssoise, aka potato leek soup. This 1917 invention is based on a traditional French preparation, and it was created by a French expatriate chef named Louis Diat in New York City. Check out this flavorful version on our sister site, Foodal.
But don’t stop there! Perhaps we can tempt you with a cheesy quiche with artichokes and roasted red peppers? This delicious recipe is also from Foodal. This quiche features cheddar cheese rather than the often-used gruyere.
For a hearty chicken dish featuring leeks, consider Foodal’s old fashioned chicken pot pie. This one-dish wonder is full of flavor and bursting with homemade love.
Quick Reference Growing Guide
|Native To:||Mediterranean||Water Needs:||1 inch per week|
|Hardiness (USDA Zone):||7 or 8||Maintenance:||Medium|
|Season:||Spring or fall||Soil Type:||Rich|
|Exposure:||Full sun||Soil pH:||6.0-7.0|
|Time to Maturity:||80-150 days, depends on variety||Soil Drainage:||Well-draining|
|Spacing:||6 inches||Companion Planting:||Other alliums|
|Planting Depth:||Seed: 1/8 inch, seedlings: half the depth||Avoid Planting With:||Beans and legumes|
|Attracts:||Flowers attract bees and butterflies||Species:||A. ampeloprasum var. porrum|
|Pests & Diseases:||Leafminer, onion maggot, thrips; rust, botrytis leaf blight, damping off, downy mildew, pink root, purple blotch, white rot|
It’s Smelling a Bit Strong in Here
Most gardeners who’ve grown leeks consider them to be fairly easy to grow. As long as you give them nutritious soil, some fertilizer, and sufficient water, they should do well in your garden. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for pests and fungi.
If you’re not terribly familiar with leeks as an ingredient in your cooking, try expanding your kitchen repertoire with this delicious allium. What better way to do that is there than by growing your own?
Are you an experienced leek grower? Please share your wisdom in the comments below.
While we’re exploring the Allium genus, why not check out a few onion articles? Give these a read next:
- How to Grow and Harvest Bunching Onions
- How to Plant and Grow Garlic in Your Veggie Patch
- 15 Of The Best Onion Varieties To Grow At Home
Photos by Fanny Slater and Raquel Smith © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Burpee, Eden Brothers, Seeds4planting, and Amazon. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. Additional writing and editing by Clare Groom and Allison Sidhu.
About Gretchen Heber
A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.