All About Leeks & Shallots
by National Gardening Association Editors
Many people enjoy vichyssoise, which is just cold leek and potato soup, but they may not have tried leeks cooked other ways. They think leeks are strange and hard-to-grow vegetables. They're not.
You can start leeks easily indoors, like onions, and set them out as transplants, or you can sow the seeds right in the garden in a wide row. Leeks like lots of fertilizer. Seeds start slowly, so don't let any weeds overwhelm them. 'American Flag' and 'King Richard' are popular varieties.
In the South, sow seeds or set out transplants in the fall. Northern gardeners should get underway in the early spring. Remember to keep the young plants watered well. If you don't use a wide row, you can set out the young transplants in the bottom of a shallow furrow. As the plants grow, gradually fill in the furrow with soil. This is one way to get nice, white stems of four to six inches. This stem-whitening or blanching method is also used with some other vegetables, such as celery and asparagus.
To blanch leeks in a wide row, spread several inches of compost, leaves or dirt on the row. Hill up the mulch a few inches around each stem. It may sound like some work, but it's worth it.
If you plant early in the spring you should get plenty of leeks a few weeks before the first fall frost. A lot of gardeners leave their leeks in the ground over the winter under a layer of mulch. (Pull the mulch back a bit when the end-of-winter temperature gets into the 20° Fs.) You can harvest overwintered leeks anytime.
Shallots have a unique flavor - something between garlic and onion, but better. They're tasty pickled or fresh with scrambled eggs, and they're a standard ingredient in many savory dishes. Shallots are expensive to buy, which is odd, because they're very easy to grow. They're one crop that's always a success.
You need shallot "sets" to get started. They are usually available from a good seed supplier or garden center. Normally they're red-skinned types like 'French Shallots', but white and yellow-skinned types are also available. Plant them very early in the spring - freezing weather doesn't hurt them. Fall planting is best in areas where the summer gets very hot.
Plant the sets four to six inches apart in a row 10 to 12 inches wide. Push them into the soil the full depth of the bulb. Shallots like lots of fertilizer. You'll get a big clump of shallots for each set you plant. You can harvest bulbs for fresh or pickling use anytime. When the tops die down, pull up the rest of your crop and dry the bulbs, just as you would onions. They store really well.
Remember to keep some of the bulbs to plant as sets the next season.
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