By Pauline Lloyd

I first developed an interest in chicory after reading the book Salad Leaves for All Seasons by Charles Dowding. Chicory is easy to grow, is largely disease and pest free and is also very tasty. Seeds can be purchased by mail order (see list of suppliers) and every year I send off for a new packet of seeds to try out. Next year I am going to try the Firestorm Radicchio, which is available by mail order from Thompson and Morgan and is sown in June/July.

Cultivation Most varieties of chicory can be sown directly into the growing site sometime between July and October (see instructions on the seed packet). Direct sowing can work quite well, but sometimes heavy losses can occur due to slugs eating the emerging young seedlings. Therefore, as a safeguard, I usually sow the seeds in trays or modules in June and plant the young seedlings out when they are growing well. I then cover each chicory plant with a cloche made out of half a plastic bottle, which is kept over the plant until it grows too big. Whilst the plants are becoming established, (especially if it’s hot and dry) I water each plant daily, either by lifting the bottle off and replacing it after watering, or by pouring some water down through the open bottle top. By the end of August the plants are usually growing well and when the weather starts to turn colder the leaves of many varieties of chicory start to darken in colour, often changing from green to red. At this stage, unlike lettuces, slugs no longer seem to attack the chicory plants and they have been troubled by very few pests and diseases so far, though a few hearts do sometimes rot. Apart from regular watering in dry weather, a sprinkling of seaweed meal and occasional weeding, chicory doesn’t require much attention in order to grow well. Do bear in mind though that when harvesting at the end of the growing season it is important to remove all of the roots, as any roots that are left in the ground will grow back again like weeds the following year.

Which varieties should I grow?

This is largely a matter of personal choice. Factors to consider include taste, soil type, the growing conditions on the chosen site and of course whether you want to grow plants indoors. You may want to experiment by planting different varieties each year until you have discovered the ones you prefer to grow. You could perhaps share packets of seeds with friends in the meantime. Most seed catalogues offer a range of varieties to choose from (see list of suppliers below). My two favourites so far are sugar loaf chicory and Rossa di Treviso.

Chicon Production Some chicory varieties can be forced and used to produce chicons (Whitloof varieties). Sow and plant these varieties out as previously described, then dig up the roots from November onwards when the leaves start to die back. Trim the top leaves down to the root’s white top and trim off a bit from the bottom of the root to tidy it up. Finally, bring all the roots indoors and keep them in a dark, warm place such as in an airing cupboard/cellar until the chicons develop on the roots.

There are two main methods used to produce the chicons: the first method involves packing the harvested roots in deep containers filled with compost, planted so that the top inch of the root is above the surface. About 3-4 roots can be planted in the same pot, which should be kept in total darkness, for example in a cupboard, airing cupboard, or in a shed. The second method comes from Charles Dowding, who wrote Salad leaves For All Seasons, and recommends placing roots horizontally in black plastic sacks. However, when I tried this I failed to get good results and found the roots tended to dry out.

Varieties suitable for forcing include Dura Whitloof, Whitloof Zoom F1, Brussels Whitloof and Yellora. I have successfully grown chicons using Whitloof Zoom F1 roots, planted in soil in a large black plastic recycling box with a tight fitting lid to keep out the light. I watered the roots at intervals to keep the soil moist and chicon production continued well into the spring. To Harvest: Twist off each chicon when it is fully developed and wash and eat the leaves.

Hearting Chicories

Rossa Di Treviso This is one of my favourite chicories with attractive green leaves that first of all go red, then turn almost black as the temperature starts to fall. I sow it in a seed tray between the middle of May and the middle of June and by the end of June the plants are usually large enough to plant out under bottles as described earlier. By September the leaves are quite big and turning red, so I start harvesting them by pulling off a few fresh leaves as and when I need them. These tasty leaves are lovely in salads and I find that their bitter taste goes well with citrus fruits, or with a mustard-flavoured dressing. I continue using the leaves well into the autumn/ winter. In 2009, I lifted the roots in November and forced them in covered containers in compost indoors like the more usual forcing varieties. However, I didn’t feel that the yield really justified the effort required for this particular variety and in future I intend to grow this crop entirely for outdoor leaf production (see recipes page).

Sugar loaf chicory leaves in Pauline’s garden. Photo: Pauline Lloyd

Sugar Loaf Chicory (Pan di Sucre) is sown from May onwards directly onto the site, or it can be sown later and planted out under cover to give a winter crop. Here in the south of England, I find that it continues producing over the winter when covered with some fleece and produces a further crop the following spring. Sugar loaf leaves make an excellent alternative to lettuce and this chicory isn’t at all bitter. In fact the large leaves resemble a cos lettuce and can be used in salads and sandwiches. Either cut the whole head at once, or harvest individual leaves as and when required. The photograph was taken in early February 2011 after a very hard winter, but the leaves have survived well, covered only with a piece of net curtain draped over some hoops for protection.

Palla Rossa is a hearting radicchio that I am trying out for the first time. It has mottled red/maroon, green and white leaves that become redder when it’s cold and form round firm hearts. I sowed the seeds in early September 2010 as it seems quite hardy and able to withstand cold, although this was later than recommended on the packet and due to the harsh winter conditions last year it failed to germinate. Most of the seeds were sown in containers outside and were covered with a fleece to protect them from slugs and the cold. However, as a backup, I also sowed some seed in a container indoors and they were successful. This radicchio, which comes from Chioggia in Italy, is used to add crunch and colour to winter salads. Harvest single leaves individually, or the whole plant at once. Indigo, Palla di Fuoco, Variegata di Lusia and Pallo Rossa di Verona are similar radicchio varieties.

Grumolo Verde I have tried to grow this green-leaved variety several times in the past, but it has never overwintered successfully outside and does not seem especially robust even in the south of England. Grumolo Rosso and Grumolo Bionda are similar varieties. I think it would probably do quite well if grown a greenhouse though.

Leafing Chicories

These are usually grown as cut and come again crops, or individual leaves can be plucked off when required. I grow mine in containers indoors, but they can be sown outside as well. There are many different shapes and sizes and the leaves are usually green or red in colour. Varieties include: Red-ribbed Dandelion, Catalogna Gigante da Chioggia, Treviso Svelta and Biondissma di Trieste.

Common chicory (Cichorium intybus)

A tall straggling plant in the daisy family, with blue or mauve flowers. It is a perennial plant but best grown as an annual when used for salad leaves. Various varieties are cultivated for their young leaves, for chicons or for the roots, which are ground as a coffee substitute or additive. It lives as a wild plant on roadsides in Europe, and has become naturalised in North America and Australia. In the United States, ‘chicory’ is the common name for endive (chichorium endivia)

I hope you will consider growing some chicory and I’m sure you will find it well worth the effort. Happy planting and eating!

Seed Suppliers

Beans and Herbs www.beansandherbs.co.uk. Run by Pippa Rosen who is a VON members, and the seeds that she produces on her own land are grown vegan organically. Note that she does buy in some seed varieties which are unlikely to be vegan organic. She can advise on which she grows herself.

The Organic Gardening Catalogue www.organiccatalogue.com

Tamar Organics www.tamarorganics.co.uk

Thompson & Morgan www.thompson-morgan.com

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 29 (Summer 2012), p36.