How to grow Chicory
Chicory Growing Guide
It’s sown at a time when virtually all other veg are ready to harvest, provides a gourmet-standard crop in the midst of winter weather and slugs seldom give the tasty leaves a second thought. Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of chicory! Here, we have a complete chicory planting guide to help you on your way to bumper harvests of this tasty member of the dandelion family. We will start with an overview of the chicory growing season.
How to grow Chicory
A packet of chicory seeds is a valuable addition to the veg growers’ armoury. They can be sown now, just as plot space is being freed up owing to the start of the summer harvest, in order to produce mildly bitter leaves or creamy heads throughout the still of winter. The plants are easy to grow, resilient and – particularly surprising for a leafy crop – will be left alone by all but the hungriest slugs and snails (the bitterness of the leaves and cool growing conditions put paid to them).
If you are already growing carrots, onions and fennel then these make ideal chicory companion plants, as they all favour the same conditions.
What is chicory?
There are actually three types of this leafy veg you can grow, and each has its own distinctive appeal. Red leaved chicory, more commonly known as radicchio, produces tart, neat, uniform-looking outer leaves, with scarlet leaves underneath, becoming more intense in colour and flavour the colder the weather.
Sugar loaf chicory, as the name implies, has a sweet taste, coupled with a growing habit similar to traditional lettuces (it’s also known as loose-leaf chicory). There are also frizzy-leaved types of curly chicory.
Witloof, forcing chicory, or Belgian endive, is finished off in the dark to produce smooth, creamy heads of young, white chicory leaves, known as ‘chicons’ (sure to bring a touch of class to a winter salad). Each is versatile enough to be raised in containers or raised beds, as well as the open ground.
How to grow chicory plants
Chicory will grow in a wide variety of soil types – the only situation it is sure to struggle in is waterlogged ground, so your chosen bed needs to be free draining. The plants prefer an open, sunny position which, coupled with a fertile soil, will allow them to thrive.
Ideally you should prepare the sowing site the previous winter – digging it over and adding plenty of organic matter – so that the soil has settled come sowing time. But as long as the manure or garden compost you use is very well rotted you can get away with doing it as little as a month before sowing. Doing this will give the young plants plenty of nutrients to draw upon while helping the soil to retain valuable moisture during the critical summer months.
Allow the ground to settle and then rake it over to create a fine tilth, breaking up any remaining clods and drawing large stones and debris to the side. About two weeks prior to sowing, rake in an organic, general purpose fertiliser, such as concentrated chicken manure, to give young plants a boost when the chicory tips emerge.
You can sow seeds of all three types of chicory in drills spaced 30cm apart. Mark out a straight line using a piece of string stretched taut between two pegs and make a furrow in the soil alongside it about 1cm deep, using a garden cane or draw hoe.
Water the drill if the soil is dry, then thinly sow the seeds along it, before covering them up and watering again to settle. The seed can also be sown into modules under cover for planting out as seedlings.
Your other option is to cultivate in containers at least 45cm in diameter. Fill a pot with multipurpose compost, gently tapping the sides to settle it down then sow seeds sparsely over the surface. Cover them with a 1cm depth of sieved compost or a layer of vermiculite.
The pots should then be placed in a part-shaded corner of the plot or within cold frames if you are starting them off at a cooler time of year (you can have some success sowing them as early as April but bear in mind that doing so does mean that they will be subjected to the summer heat, which can cause stress and lead to them running to seed, or ‘bolting’).
Seedlings will emerge within around two weeks and once they reach 2cm in height should be ‘thinned out’ to ensure those that remain have sufficient space to grow on. If you are wondering when you plant chicory out, this can be done in stages – simply plucking the weaker-looking specimens from the soil – to leave an ultimate spacing of 20cm between individual plants. Some varieties of radicchio may require more room than this, so be guided by the seed packet instructions.
Radicchio and sugar loaf chicory plant leaves may also be grown as cut-and-come-again crops. This popular technique will allow several cuts of smaller, tender leaves to be made throughout the summer. Let the seedlings germinate but thin them to a much denser spacing – 2–5cm is fine.
Cut the young chicory leaves when they are 2–10cm long, trimming them off about an inch above the soil to protect the central growing point. The young plants will re-sprout and be ready for another cut a few weeks later. Once the leaves begin to get a little tough, thin the plants out to the spacings detailed on the previous page and let them grow on into mature heads.
Once they’re left to mature, all chicories develop in two stages – first they will produce a strong root with green leaves, which can be picked over for using raw in salads. After this, the leaves begin to change: sugar loaf varieties will go on to die right back and then re-grow, while radicchios start to turn red as a response to dropping temperatures.
The Witloof varieties can be forced from November to January. To do this, you will need to look at harvesting the chicory roots when they are around 3–5cm wide at the top in November and cut off the leaves (they can be eaten) so a 2cm stump remains. Pot the chicory roots up into containers of soil or sand – about four to six per 20cm container – and keep them in total darkness by placing another pot of the same size over the top, with the drainage holes completely covered.
Keep the chicory plant roots damp and maintain a temperature upwards of 10°C (50°F) – a garage is perfect for this. Within three to six weeks your chicons will be ready to harvest. A steady supply can be had by storing the lifted roots horizontally in trays of sand and placing these in a cool spot such as a garden shed until ready for use.
Alternatively, chicory can be forced in situ in sandy soils. Cut back the leaves as above, then draw up the earth around the stumps in a similar way to earthing up potatoes, to create a ridge about 18cm deep. The chicons will be ready for use in mid-winter, as soon as their tips start to appear through the earthed-up soil.
Growing Chicory month-by-month
Maintain frost protection. Keep forcing lifted roots in the dark for creamy heads of pale leaves.
Sow the first seeds of chicory in the greenhouse of polytunnel for young cut-and-come-again crops in a few months. Keep forcing lifted roots.
Continue sowing radicchio and sugar loaf chicories under cover for cut-and-come-again leaves. This is also your final chance to force roots.
Make the first outdoor sowings of leafy chicories for delicious cuttings throughout the summer.
Sowings made in May will be ready to harvest by early autumn (slightly later in the north of the country).
Start sowing varieties for autumn and winter cutting towards the end of the month. Keep picking cutand- come-again leaves.
This is the peak time for sowing chicories for autumn and winter cutting or forcing.
Finish sowing chicory for autumn and winter harvesting. Keep young plants well watered.
Continue to maintain a weed-free environment for your young plants – either do it by hand or lightly hoe the area around them.
As the end of the month approaches, you can now begin to take the initial cuts of mature chicory heads from your plants.
Radicchio should be taking on its ruby-red colouration. Lift roots of forcing chicory ready to pot up.
Continue cutting summer-sown heads of chicory, and forcing roots. Protect in-ground plants against severe frosts using cloches or horticultural fleece.
Caring for your Chicory plants + problems
Young chicory plants will require minimal competition if they are to grow on into mature heads of leaves or stocky roots for forcing. Be sure to keep the rows free from weeds by regular hand weeding or careful hoeing. You should also water the area regularly in warm weather in order to stop the ground drying out and the plants becoming stressed.
Sugar loaf chicory and radicchio will be ready for cutting by the autumn but they will often sit throughout the winter given a bit of protection from the worst of the weather. They can withstand milder frosts, but covering them with cloches, horticultural fleece or straw will keep them healthy until they are ready for use, without impairing flavour.
Roots of Witloof chicory will be ready to force by mid-autumn, when the tops measure approximately 3–5cm across. Follow the instructions in the box below for perfect chicons every time.
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How to harvest Chicory
Regardless of their colour and type, all chicories have a distinctive bitter taste – a rare exception to the natural sweetness of most vegetable crops. Sugar loafs should be harvested as soon as a lettuce-sized clump of leaves has formed. Cut the heads leaving a 2cm stump in the ground to re-sprout, as a second crop of leaves will often follow.
Radicchio can be cut in the same way, or you can take individual leaves from the outside of the head as needed. The longer radicchio is left in the cold winter air, the deeper the red colouration will become, so delay harvesting if you favour a handsome ruby-red leaf colour.
Forced chicory plants will be ready to cut once they reach 10–12cm in height and have formed a good, tight head. Cut them with a garden knife to leave a stump and it is likely you will be able to take another head of forced leaves a few weeks later.
Varieties of Chicory
Chicory varieties to try
This wild chicory plant has beautiful blue chicory flowers which can be used (alongside the leaves) in salads. If you are wondering ‘how tall does chicory grow?’ this particular type can reach up to 1m, so taller than the other kinds. This is also often referred to as common chicory.
Radicchio 'Rossa di Treviso Precoce'
A beautiful red chicory perfect for adding zest, colour, and unique flavour to your salads. It has a great weather resistance, so if perfect for growing in the autumn and winter months.
This brilliant forcing variety is compact, so great for any space, and can even be grown in pots! It enjoys a sunny position, and makes a great addition to salads, as well as being delicious when steamed.