Ask a Master Gardener: How to add leeks to your garden

It's headed toward 65 degrees while I am writing this article.

Last week, a friend and I played golf one day and shoveled snow the next day. Where else but Missouri can you get such variety in so little time?

And if you are looking for variety in the garden I have something for you to try: leeks.

Leeks can be expensive, but nothing flavors a soup or has such an aromatic effect on a saute than leeks.

But leeks have a somewhat bad reputation for being hard to grow.

I will admit I have had a hard time getting them to grow in the past, but I think I have found a method that helps quite a bit.

In the past, I planted the seeds in the garden as soon as the dirt was workable. Now, I start the seeds indoors.

This helps my success rate tremendously. Leeks grow pretty slow and big plants transplant best, so get your perches and your seeds and get ready to start them now for early spring transplants.

You can start leeks in flats in late January and early February.

Plant the seeds 1/4 inch apart and 1/4 inch deep in a warm place. Nowadays, I use a seed starting heat mat to start seeds, but I used to use the top of the fridge. The seeds will germinate best at around 70 to 75 degrees.

Wherever you start them, be sure to get them to the light source as soon as you see them peeking through the soil to prevent tall "leggy" or weak plants. The new growing area should be a little cooler, also.

Transplant to bigger containers when large enough to handle, and keep them well fertilized.

Leeks started early in the year benefit from at least two to three hours of supplementary light each day. I usually aim for total of about 14 hours of light per day. This can be accomplished with florescent lights but remember to keep your plants within two to four inches of the light.

Although leeks are hardy plants, they still need to be "hardened off" by gradually exposing them to outdoor conditions. I have heard that leeks are cold hardy down to about 5 degrees.

A week or two before the last frost, place the seedlings in a sheltered area outdoors where they will be exposed to a few hours of direct sunshine a day.

Move the plants back indoors at night if it is very cold. Gradually work the seedlings up to a full day of sun. This should take one to two weeks.

After the seedlings are hardened off, it will be time to put them in the garden. Although there are several ways of planting leeks to accomplish the blanching process, I sometimes use the trench method.

You dig a 6-inch-deep trench and set the seedlings 6 inches apart in a row in the bottom of the trench. The leek seedlings are anchored in place inside the furrow with a small amount of a soil and compost mixture.

More soil is added gradually over the following weeks as the plants grow, gradually filling in the trench with soil, blanching the stalks in the process. Take care not to cover the plants over where the leaves start to split.

A couple of years ago I tried a new method that was a little easier and less time consuming. Use a broom handle to make holes 6-8 inches deep and about 6 inches apart. Leave about a foot between rows. Carefully lower one leek plant into each hole, twisting each between your fingers to get the roots in. Check that the roots are in the bottom of the hole.

Pour water in to the hole. Don't worry about pushing the soil in. It will fill loosely on its own which will give the leek roots room to grow.

When the furrow is completely filled with soil, or you are done with the hole method, mulch the bed with a layer of straw or shredded leaves to help conserve moisture, block weed growth and blanch more of the stems.

Weed control is essential because leeks do not like to compete for water and nutrients. Leeks are heavy feeders so an application of fertilizer throughout the season might be necessary. You can fertilize with compost tea or a general fertilizer from the garden center.

Happy gardening!

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway County Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected].