Growing Endive & Chicory
In recent years gourmet European and Asian greens have gained popularity in this country. They add a spicy taste and an interesting texture to regular salads, and are sold separately or prepackaged in mixes (such as mesclun). For the adventurous, other edible greens, such as purslane, sorrel, miner's lettuce and chrysanthemum are readily available through seed catalogs.
Endive is a cool-weather green with a distinct, clean, sharp taste. You'll find it in the produce bins of most stores, but it's expensive. It doesn't like hot weather too well, but it can take some pretty hard frosts. So it's a good winter green down South where the temperatures are mild. In the North it's grown as a spring or fall crop only.
Plant the seeds directly in the garden, keeping the soil moist until they come up.
For a spring crop, plant seeds in the garden two to four weeks before the last frost-free date. Start fall crops about 15 weeks before the expected date of the first fall frost. Plant in wide rows and thin later to six to seven inches between plants. You can start endive in flats indoors like head lettuce and transplant it later if you want.
Like other greens, endive tastes best when it grows quickly and steadily. Make sure it gets enough water and fertilizer.
To reduce the bitterness of endive, cut off the light to the heads, or "blanch" them, right out in the garden about a week before harvesting them. Gather the leaves of the plant and tie them together above the head or cut the tops and bottoms out of milk cartons and slip these homemade blanching tubes over the plants.
There are two types of endive. Curly-leaved types, such as 'Green Curled' and 'Salad King' have narrow, frilly leaves. The green known as "escarole" is actually a less-curly endive with broader leaves, and is grown the same way as endive. 'Batavian Full Heart' is a popular escarole.
Chicory grows wild in many parts of the country. It's easy to recognize in fields or along the road when the plants sport many small blue flowers in late summer. Although the leaves of wild chicory are edible when young and tender, there are a number of cultivated chicories that provide gardeners with better eating. Cultivated chicories come in three basic types: leafy types grown for greens, those grown for forcing indoors and those grown for their roots, which are used as a coffee substitute.
The leafy chicories form a diverse group, more popular in Europe than in this country. Both the beautiful red-leaved varieties, such as 'Guilio' and 'Red Treviso', and the green-leaved, or sugar-loaf types, such as 'Catalogna', are shaped like Chinese cabbages, and are sown in mid-summer for a fall or early winter harvest.
Thin plants to 10 to 12 inches apart. The red chicories are green during the summer, turning red only in the cool weather of fall. Gardeners in the North may find that some varieties of chicory, especially the green-leaved ones, are too tender to take fall frosts, although covering the heads with cloches or hotcaps may be helpful. Leafy chicories haven't been widely grown in this country, so there isn't a great deal of information on which varieties do best in different parts of the country. There's still lots of room for experimentation with this crop.
Some gardeners like to blanch their chicory for a milder flavor. About three weeks before harvesting, cover the heads with a flower pot with its drainage hole plugged to exclude light. Do this only in dry weather - wet plants will rot if covered.
Witloof Chicory or Belgian Endive
Witloof chicory roots can be forced in the fall or in the dead of winter to form nice tight heads of fresh leaves for salads. Forcing simply means encouraging the roots to use their stored energy to send up fresh top growth.
Sow seeds of forcing chicories in early spring in the North, or in midsummer in warmer parts of the country. Don't harvest the leaves over the summer. You want the plant to put all its energy into developing a large root.
Even better is to harvest the roots, store them and force them in the cellar in midwinter when a fresh head of chicory is really a delight. To do this, dig the roots sometime after the first killing frost. Roots six to eight inches long are best for forcing. Don't brush them or wash them. Just place them in the sun for an hour or so. Then store them in a cool cellar (40 to 50° F) in sand, sawdust, peat moss or in plastic bags. When winter sets in, remove some of the roots and trim the root ends so they're pretty much the same length - six to eight inches is best.
Half fill a box twice the height of the roots with sawdust, sand, peatmoss or very fine soil. Poke the roots into the growing medium, standing them upright and close to but not touching each other. The crowns of the roots should just be at the top of the packing material. Water thoroughly and then top off the box with another six inches or so of more fine sand, peat or sawdust. Put the box out of light in a warm spot (60F is ideal) and keep the earth moist. Cover the box with plastic or newspaper to retain moisture. Three or four weeks later you can harvest the tightly folded leaves that sprout up from the center bud of the crown. Cut or snap off the heads at the crown (you'll need to remove the top six inches of dry material in order to harvest the heads).
You may have to water again if the lower packing material dries out a bit. Make a hole through the top layer to water. You don't want it wet where the leaves are growing.
The heads are generally an inch or two in diameter and five or six inches tall. The leaves are yellowish or white because they haven't received any light. Separate the leaves before serving them.
You can start forcing a box of roots every two weeks or so to have a supply throughout the cold months.