Forcing or Belgian chicory – is grown for the crisp young leaf shoots, known as chicons, which are forced and blanched in winter to make them sweeter and less bitter. The most widely grown variety is ‘Witloof’
Radicchio or red chicory – forms a tight head of usually deep red leaves with contrasting white veins. It’s an attractive, colourful addition to the veg plot and the plate. Blanching isn’t necessary, as the inner leaves are protected from light, reducing their bitterness. The flavour becomes milder when the leaves are roasted or grilled.
Sugarloaf or non-forcing chicory – produces large hearted heads of crisp green leaves, resembling a tall Cos lettuce, for harvesting in autumn. As its name implies, it has a sweeter flavour than the other types
Radicchio and sugarloaf chicory can also be grown as baby leaves, for cut-and-come-again crops to add zing to mixed salads. They can be sown repeatedly in small batches for continuous harvests almost all year round, if given protection in the colder months.
In addition to the culinary chicory varieties, you can also grow chicory (Cichorium intybus) as an ornamental plant, for its pretty blue flowers, which are popular with bees and other pollinators. It has edible but very bitter dandelion-like leaves. The roots have traditionally been used to make a coffee substitute.
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There are many varieties of each type of chicory (see above), providing a choice of flavours, leaf sizes, shapes and colours. The red-leaved radicchio types in particular make an attractive crop on veg plots and in containers, or even in flower borders, as well as adding a splash of colour to meals.
When choosing chicory varieties, look in particular for those with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM), which shows they performed well in trials, so should crop reliably – see our list of AGM fruit and veg.
You can see many salad crops such as chicory growing in the veg plots at the RHS gardens, so do visit to see how they are grown, compare varieties and pick up useful tips.
What and where to buy
Chicory seeds are widely available in garden centres and from online seed suppliers.
Chicory prefers an open, sunny site, but will tolerate some shade in summer, when it can be grown between taller crops. The soil should ideally be fertile and free draining, although it will grow well in most soils.
Chicory for forcing should be sown outdoors in May and June, and non-forcing types outdoors in June and July, or indoors in April and May. Don’t be tempted to sow too early outdoors – cold spells can cause chicory to bolt, producing flowers rather than leaves.
For baby salad leaves, non-forcing types can be sown in small batches throughout spring and summer, or from late winter and in early autumn in a greenhouse.
Sowing indoors allows you to get a head start when conditions outside are still too cold, especially when growing chicory as baby salad leaves. It also keeps plants out of reach of slugs and snails until they’re larger and more robust.
Sow chicory seeds thinly, 1cm (½in) deep, in rows 30cm (12in) apart. Take care to protect seedlings from slugs and snails.
Thin out the seedlings as they grow, until forcing varieties are 15cm (6in) apart, non-forcing chicories 30cm (12in) apart, and those grown for baby salad leaves just 5cm (2in) apart.
Chicory can also be sown in large containers of multi-purpose compost, then thinned out to a similar final spacing.
Chicory is fast growing and relatively low maintenance, but do keep it well watered in summer. With forcing types, start the forcing process in late autumn, to produce crisp, blanched chicons through winter and early spring.
Water chicory thoroughly during dry weather to deter bolting, when plants produce flowers at the expense of leaves. Lack of water can also make the leaves more bitter in flavour.
Apply a thick layer of mulch, such as well-rotted manure or garden compost, around chicory plants to help hold moisture in the soil and deter weeds.
Chicory doesn’t generally require feeding, but if you grow it in a container, apply a general-purpose liquid feed fortnightly through summer.
Keep chicory seedlings and young plants weed-free, to reduce competition for light, water and nutrients.
Forcing and blanching
Varieties of forcing chicory, such as ‘Witloof’, are grown for their small heads of young leaves, which are blanched so they develop a sweeter flavour. These are known as chicons and are a prized seasonal delicacy. They are produced by potting up dormant roots indoors in late autumn or winter, then blanching the resulting new leaves, in a similar way to forcing rhubarb.
Dig up forcing chicory plants in November, discarding any that are less than 2.5cm (1in) across at the crown. Cut back the old leaves to 2.5cm (1in) above the crown
Pack the roots horizontally in sand in a cool shed until required
Force a few roots at a time by planting up to five vertically in a 25cm (10in) pot of moist compost, leaving the crown exposed at the surface
Cover the pot with black polythene (or an upturned bucket or large pot with the drainage holes covered) and keep at 10–15°C (50–59°F). A cluster of pale yellow leaves (a chicon) will sprout from the crown
Once the chicon is 15cm (6in) tall, harvest by cutting it at the base. If you leave the stump in place and cover the pot again, a second smaller chicon may form.
Radicchio and sugarloaf chicory don’t usually need blanching (they are usually described as ‘self-blanching’), since the outer leaves of the head naturally blanch the inner ones. It’s the inner leaves that you eat, as they develop a less bitter flavour. However, you can aid the process by tying the outer leaves of near-mature heads loosely together with twine. Alternatively, you can cover the head with a bucket to exclude light.
Blanching usually takes a couple of weeks, but in cooler autumn weather it may take longer – when ready, the leaves should be pale and tender. The process is similar to blanching endive, a close relative of chicory. During blanching, check plants regularly for slugs and snails.
Radicchio and sugarloaf chicory form lettuce-like heads that are ready to harvest from late summer to mid-autumn. After cutting, leave the stump and it may re-sprout to provide a second, smaller head. Harvest before the first frosts or protect with cloches or fleece.
In the kitchen, discard the outer leaves, as they are usually tough and bitter. The blanched inner leaves have a sweeter tangy flavour, but if left exposed to light after harvesting, they will soon turn green and more bitter.
Chicory is also ideal for harvesting as baby salad leaves, especially sugarloaf varieties. The leaves grow quickly and take up little space, and you can start harvesting on a cut-and-come-again basis just a month or two after sowing. If sown regularly, you can have pickings for most of the year.
Radicchio chicory often develops its rich red colouring from late summer onwards, as the days shorten and temperatures fall. Raw or cooked, it adds a splash of colour to many dishes and is widely used in Italian cuisine. When roasted or grilled, its flavour becomes milder.
Sugarloaf chicory has a naturally sweeter flavour, but still with a bitter tang. Use it raw in salads or lightly cooked.
This type of chicory forms a small leafy head, or chicon, when potted up indoors in autumn or winter and grown without light (see forcing method above). Harvest the chicons when 15cm (6in) tall, after about four weeks of blanching. The leaves are pale and crisp, with a bitter-sweet flavour. They can be eaten raw as salad leaves or cooked (especially roasted or grilled) for a mellower flavour.
Protect seedlings and plants from slugs and snails. When forcing or blanching, check under the covering regularly for slugs and snails and any signs of rotting.
Chicory may bolt (start to flower and stop producing leaves) in hot or dry weather, so don’t let plants go short of water. Early sowings outdoors, when temperatures are still too low, can also lead to bolting. If plants do bolt, they produce attractive blue flowers and often self-seed, giving you a new generation of plants for free.
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