Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Grow your own chicons (Belgian endive)

Growing delicious salad greens in December in Colorado may seem a stretch to some but it’s not as far-fetched as it may seem. Belgian endive or witloof chicory will produce the tight shoots of leaves known as chicons through winter forcing. They are highly desired for gourmet salads and are used either alone or with other greens. They can also be lightly steamed and are high in vitamin C.

As discussed last post, this plant is another form of chicory, Cichorium intybus. Belgian endive requires a two stage production process. These plants are grown as a root crop during the summer (first stage), dug and stored cold for winter forcing (second stage). They require a little over 3 months for root production so plant in early July. Be sure to plant Belgian endive and not the endive/escarole/frisee seed discussed last post.

Roots can be dug after the first frost in fall depending on variety and maturity. Mature roots are 1 ¼ to 2 ¼ inches in diameter. The final harvest should be made by early December from beds mulched to avoid soil freezing. Trim tops back to 1 inch and store roots by planting in pots of dry soil or lined out in rows in open-top trays that are at least 6 inches deep and have drainage. Roots that are too long for the container can be trimmed from the bottom. Do not water after planting but make sure that soil touches all sides of the roots and air pockets are eliminated. Store in an uncovered coldframe or under an outdoor deck on a north or east side where temperatures will hold at 40 to 60 degrees F (cooler is better). Root cellars or unheated garages and garden sheds are other storage possibilities. Roots are often covered with perlite, sawdust or dry sand after soil temperatures have cooled. This keeps them cool but mulches them from extreme cold.

The mulch becomes necessary to the second stage growing process, forcing. Roots should be forced in the dark so the shoots remain yellow-white and develop a mild flavor. Light cause the shoots to turn green and taste bitter. Some home growers use a length of 4 inch diameter plastic pipe over a root planted in a pot, filling the 6 inch tall pipe with perlite or a peat-sand mixture. Containers can be watered by applying water to the soil surface at the base of the pipe and not through the top of the pipe. Keep roots moist for the 3 to 4 week forcing period. Good soil drainage is important so roots don’t rot. Harvest when shoots poke out the top of the pipe. With this pipe method, you can tip the perlite or peat-sand mixture out of the top of the pipe, lift the pipe off the shoot, and cut the chicon at the soil line.

Winter forcing can be done over time producing a stream of fresh greens. Limitations to production will be when storage becomes too warm and roots start to grow. Note that traditional varieties such as ‘Totem’ and ‘Witloof di Bruxelles’ are forced by the soil or mulch covering method in darkness. New hybrid varieties from Europe such as ‘Normato’, ‘Mitado’ and ‘Tardivo’ produce tight heads in darkness without the need for soil or mulch covering.

Photo credit: Witloof roots, Rasbak. Chicon, David.Monniaux.

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