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How to grow organic Chicory
by Frann Leach
Chicons are good for winter salads, or can be served cooked
Family: Compositae (Group 4)
Chicory is a hardy vegetable, grown mainly for winter salads, but also used cooked. It is generally divided into three types, Witloof or Belgian, Sugar loaf and Radicchio or Red chicory. Each is cultivated in a different way. It is also sometimes grown as a herb. See herb chicory.
Recommended cultivarsWitloof Belgian
Witloof forcing chicory is grown for its chicons, obtained by forcing roots in the dark in winter.
Witloof chicory grows best on an open site with fertile soil, but not freshly manured, or the roots will fork.
Sow thinly in May to early June in 30cm (12") rows, thinning to 20cm (8") apart. During summer keep well weeded and water to prevent soil drying out. Leave plants growing until late Autumn.
Forcing in situ
This is only possible on light or sandy soils. Heads forced outdoors will be ready later than those forced indoors, but better flavoured. In October or early November cut the leaves off about 2.5cm (1") above the neck (the leaves can be eaten). Earth up the stumps so that they are covered with about 15-18cm (6-7") of soil. To speed up development, the ridge can be covered with straw or cloches. The chicons will slowly force their way through the soil and will be ready for cutting between January and March.
Lift the roots any time between late October and December, discarding fanged or thin ones. The ideal size for forcing is 4-5cm (1½-2") in diameter at the top. Trim the leaves off 2.5cm (1") above the neck. Store flat until needed in boxes in a shed covered with sand to prevent them drying out, or outside covered with straw.
Force a few roots at a time between December and April. Fill a 20-22cm (8-9") pot with old compost, soil or sand and stand as many roots in it as will fit, trimming if necessary to 18-20cm (7-8"). Cover with another flower pot of the same size, blocking the drainage holes to completely exclude light. Put the pot in a warm place at a temperature of 50ª-64ª F (10ª-18ª C), such as an airing cupboard. Make sure all light is excluded, but give plants plenty of headroom, as rot may develop in a stagnant atmosphere.
Alternatively, plant the roots in the soil under greenhouse staging or in cold frames, cover with 20cm (8") soil, sand, leafmould etc.
With all forcing methods, water the soil if it becomes dry.
Heads of earthed up chicory are ready when the tips are visible, and heads forced indoors when they are 10-12cm (4-5") tall and look sturdy. Cut with a sharp knife 2.5cm (1") above the neck. The roots will sometimes resprout to give a second, smaller head. Keep chicons covered or in a dark place until required, or they will become green and bitter.
Recommended cultivarsOld varieties: Bianca di Milano, Pain de Sucre, Sugar Loaf
New varieties: Poncho, Snowflake (or Winter Fare)
Sugar loaf chicory looks rather like cos lettuce, with tightly packed leaves. It is grown mainly for an autumn crop, but can be grown throughout winter with protection and as cut and come again seedlings. It prefers fertile, moisture retaining soil.
Sow in June and July in 30cm (12") rows and thin to 25cm (10"). Keep well watered during summer. Provide protection with cloches, straw or bracken (held in place with wire hoops) before the first frosts.
A second sowing can be made in July or August for transplanting under cover in autumn for a winter crop, treated as a cut-and-come-again semi-mature crop.
Always cut the heads 2.5cm (1") above the soil, leaving the stump to resprout. Cutting can start in autumn and continue as required.
Pests and diseases of Witloof and Sugar loaf varieties
Cold wet weather may cause rotting. Remove any decayed leaves, but leave the stump, as it may recover.
Recommended varietiesEarly: Alouette, Cesare, Rossano
Standard: Red Devil, Red Treviso*, Verona Palla Rossa*
*can be forced
Red Chicory or Radicchio is characterised by its red or variegated colouring. It develops a small crisp heart. Older cultivars tend to have loose green heads in summer, which start to form tighter hearts and develop a reddish colour in the colder nights of autumn. Newer cultivars are larger and have denser hearts earlier in the season.
Red chicory is mainly used shredded in salads, but can be cooked. The flavour is naturally quite bitter, the crisp inner leaves less so.
Red chicory tolerates a wide range of soil types and a wide range of temperatures.
Sow early varieties from late April to May for a summer crop. Make the main sowing in June and early July for autumn cropping. Sow in August for transplanting under cover in September for a winter crop. Plants grown under cover in winter grow larger and form good hearts. Some types can be forced like Witloof.
Sow thinly in situ, in seed trays or modules for transplanting. Spacing is 20-35cm (8-14") each way according to variety. Early crops benefit from crop covers.
In late autumn, protect with cloches or straw to prolong the season. In mild winters, plants may last through to spring.
Either pick individual leaves as required or cut hearts as for sugar loaf chicory, leaving stumps to resprout.
Pests and diseases
Rarely attacked, although leaves can rot in damp weather or under cover. Remove decaying leaves. The plants often recover in warmer weather.