Chicory

Why Grow It?

A bitter leaved, tangy salad plant, chicory is easy to grow and adds a nice texture to winter salads in particular.  There are three types:

  1. Red chicory often known as radicchio or Italian chicory
  2. Forcing chicory – which is ‘forced’ by depriving the plants of light to produce tender, sweet white growths called chicons (which are a lot like tender cos lettuce)
  3. Sugarloaf chicory which is like lettuce

Chicory can be grown in a raised bed or open ground, or even in a pot – so it’s ideal for the balcony grower.  You can grow them as baby leaves or let them grow on to produce a compact head.  Forcing chicory can often be the only way of having tender young salad leaves in a very cold climate as you are forcing them indoors in pots – and the little chicons are a delicacy.

Sowing

Chicory can be sown direct or in module trays or pots for later planting (about three weeks after sowing).  Sow indoors or under cover from March.  Germination takes between one to two weeks.  Sowing every two to three weeks should produce a reliable, consistent crop.  A late sowing in August will give you leaves to harvest up to Christmas.

Growing

For module trays, sow approx. 1cm deep and plant out 3-4 weeks later (once they have reached 10cm tall) leaving 15 to 20cm between plants. Make sure the soil is moist and the seedlings do not dry out. Water well until they are firmly established.

To sow direct, sow 1 to 2 seeds every 10cm in rows 20cm apart. Once established, thin plants to 15-20cm in the row.

To grow in a pot, fill a large 45cm pot with good quality potting compost and sow the seeds thinly across the surface and cover with a 1cm layer of vermiculite.

Harvesting

You can start harvesting the baby leaves as soon as they are ready.  Or leave to form a compact head – it will feel firm and plump to touch when it’s ready.  Cut the plant at ground level.  It will come back if you don’t dig it up for forcing (see below).  The raddichio varieties grown for their red leaves will be green in the summer and only go red in the colder weather of autumn/winter.

To force in winter, you can either dig up a few plant roots and put them in big pots or buy dormant plants in pots in the autumn.  If using your own, cut the plants back to about 2cm of foliage, dig up the roots and plant them in a big pot. Put a bucket over the top of the pot to block out light and store in a shed or somewhere frost free.  Tender white chicons will form over winter – these can be cut off and eaten, and the process can then be repeated for spring.  After this, remove the bucket from the top and allow plants to grow as normal.

Recommended Varieties

Witloof de Brussels, Red Treviso, Pallo Rossa

Problems

Sometimes you can have an issue with the leaves rotting in damp conditions (particularly those grown under cover) – make sure they have adequate ventilation and keep removing rotting leaves.

GIY Tips

  1. Keep the soil evenly moist – plants that are stressed from lack of water produce bitter leaves
  2. The dried tap root of chicory can be ground and used as a substitute for coffee.