Planting Leeks

And speaking of leeks… Today I planted my favorite of all vegetables. Yes, favorite. Well, perhaps not quite. Tomatoes probably take the number one spot. But a very close second is leeks. Why? Well, the flavor, of course: not quite onion, not quite garlic, soft, subtle, never overwhelming. There’s something very poetic about leeks. They frame the gardening year – leeks are the very first of all the seeds to be planted in the spring, sown in flats in the greenhouse in February;  they are the very last vegetable to be harvested in the fall, sometimes from under the snow.

Then, there’s (my) famous leek au gratin… but more on that later.

Leek seedlings in their divided tray just before planting

Leek seedlings in their divided tray just before planting

This year I am growing two kinds of leeks.  A new shorter version called ‘Bandit’ that I haven’t tried, and a longer season variety I’ve grown before and loved: ‘Tadorna.’

There are two tricks to growing leeks. The first, as I mentioned, is starting the seeds very early in cell trays. I sow them in my greenhouse; under lights would work just as well.

These divided trays make your life very easy, as when it comes time to plant, you have only to pop your little friends out of the individual cells, and into the waiting trench. And that, the trench, is the second part of the secret. In order to get the long, white stems so valued by cooks, you need to mound up the soil as the leeks mature.

The planting process is pretty simple: Dig a trench about six or eight inches deep, and as wide as your planting space allows. (Leeks need about a 5-inch spacing.) Make sure your soil is as rich as you can make it: plenty of humus (I use rotted horse manure delivered in quantity from a local stable.) plus a generous helping of 10-10-10.

Pop each leek out of the individual cells, and with a narrow trowel, dig a two-inch or so hole. Insert the leeklet, and firm up the soil.

Newly planted leeks in their trench.

Newly planted leeks in their trench. A bit floppy at the moment, but they'll upright themselves in a few days.

That’s it.

As the leeks mature, you simply slowly fill in the trench around the leeks until the ground is again level, which has the added side benefit of submerging any weeds that may have formed. Planted in July, the first leeks are ready in October here in Boston. But I like to plant mine in the cold frames, as you see here, which enables me to harvest the leeks during the entire winter. In warmer climates you can simply mulch the leeks with hay, and break them out from under the snow. But be sure to use them up before spring arrives: once they begin to flower, they develop a tough, inedible core.

Oh yes, and that leek gratin I mentioned? It’s a dish I serve each year on New Year’s Eve to rave reviews. Kathy Gunst, noted chef and author, whipped this up for me a decade back ago (yikes, time flies!) on my Cultivated Gardener NPR radio show. It’s been a favorite ever since.

RECIPE: Leek Gratin
4 medium size leeks, cleaned as described above and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, very thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh chopped thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoon fresh basil, cut into thin strips
Salt and pepper
About 1/4 cup heavy cream
About 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In an oven-proof skillet or gratin dish, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the garlic and onion and sauté, stirring frequently, for about 8 minutes, or until turning golden brown. Meanwhile place the leek pieces in the boiling water for about 30 seconds; remove with a slotted spoon. Add the leeks to the skillet with the onions along with the thyme, basil and salt and pepper and cook about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the cream and cover with foil or a lid and place in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the leeks are tender and the cream is thickened. Remove the foil and sprinkle with the cheese. Bake another 5 minutes and then place under the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbling. Serve hot. Serves 4 to 6.

OK leeks planted. Now off to weed the perennial border.

Traditional Gardening Magazine, Reborn Online

My online column Old House, Old Garden owes its genesis to two unrelated events. The first was a I call I received the other day, asking once again: “Michael, may I still subscribe to your magazine, Traditional Gardening®?”

The second was a small dinner party I gave recently, in which I was regaling my guests with the adventures, or rather misadventures of restoring, living in and gardening around an 1852 farmhouse. I had just finishing telling the story of how, in my very first attempt at an elegant Thanksgiving dinner at the house, the entire lower sash of the dining room window blew out just as I was about to carve the turkey, when one of my friends, still laughing, asked “Why don’t you write these stories down?”

Good questions, both.

The answer to the first – why Traditional Gardening is no longer published in print format – is easy. Money. After four years, a huge amount of fun and very few profits, I was lured away by a very lucrative offer from Country Living to be their gardening editor. Still, I missed TG, as did the readers. Rarely a month went by when someone didn’t find an old copy lying around somewhere, and call trying to subscribe.

The second question, why not write my adventures down, wasn’t so easy. I had thought about it. In fact, I had been toying with writing a book, Old House, Old Garden, for years. But one thing or another got in the way (like two more books, and hosting The Victory Garden series on PBS!) and I just never got around to pulling the material together. Writing a non-fiction book is a daunting task, requiring huge amounts of time and energy to produce a product, all to be eventually launched willy-nilly into an extremely uncertain publishing market. Did I really want to go down that road a fourth time? The frank answer was no, especially with the publishing world in such disarray.

Then it came to me. Why not put Traditional Gardening online, using a familiar format, the blog?. But not just a blog: real articles, with real content, useful to real gardeners. With ten years additional experience researching historical gardens under my belt, I could continue the scholarship we had accomplished so well at Traditional Gardening – plus throw in some practical advice I’ve garnered from almost 20 years spent in restoring and expanding the gardens around my own old house – not to mention telling an occasional amusing tale or two, all at the same time – without losing my financial shirt.

So, for the thousands of print Traditional Gardening readers: Welcome back. And for the rest, just plain welcome.