Monday 16 December 2013

Chicory tips - forcing chicory for winter salads

Chicory is a dandelion-like plant which grows thick strong leaves. These are tough and bitter to eat, but at some stage of human evolution, people discovered that if the plants were made to grow in the dark, they would send out tender, crunchy, sweeter shoots that were much nicer to eat. These pale, yellow tipped shoots are called chicons - it's almost worth growing them for the lovely name alone.

Hence, forcing. We don't only force chicory. Rhubarb is forced to produce sweet tender stalks in February/March, a month or two before the unforced plants are ready naturally. Much of the UK’s forced rhubarb is grown in West Yorkshire around Wakefield, an area known as the 'rhubarb triangle', where row after row of blacked-out sheds are lit only by candlelight. You can even hear the stalks popping as they rush to send up shoots in search of light.

The French frisee, the crunchy lettuce with feathery leaves, is typically forced, by having a bucket set over the centre of the plant while growing, to produce a heart of white crunchy leaves. Frisee is related to chicory and here the forcing has the same effect: the white shoots are much more tender than the naturally grown green leaves.

We’ve been forcing chicory here in the Secret Garden Club for the first time this year.

With rhubarb and chicory, the plant must be well established before you try to force it. It’s no good planting a seed or seedling and then plunging it into the dark. The plant must have developed a good root system with stored nutrients. So you sow your chicory seeds in spring as normal, and raise the plant out in the open throughout the summer.

Three weeks ago, we dug up nine chicory plants like these and trimmed off all the existing leaves, to leave just the taproot. We replanted these roots in damp compost in pots, three chicory roots to a 25cm pot, and covered each pot with an upturned black bucket. Then just to make sure no light crept in, we covered the pots with a black bin liner for good measure.

In January we’ll be doing something very similar with our rhubarb and forcing that to produce early, bright pink, tender stalks. They have a more delicate taste compared to the robust stems which grow out in the open and which we’ll start harvesting in April.

Top tips for growing chicory for forcing
  •      Plant chicory in spring. You can grow in pots or troughs, or in the open ground. We’ve done both, using a discarded recycling box (recycling it, in fact) as a trough. The plants in the beds outside generally grew bigger and stronger taproots.
  •      The chicory plants look remarkably like dandelions when they’re growing. Don’t weed any by mistake.
Top left: choose a chicory plant with a nice fat base. Top right: Trim the
roots if they are particularly long. Middle left: drop the chicory root into
a pot filled with compost. Middle right: firm the soil around the
chicory. Bottom left: cut off the leaves at the top of the root. Bottom
right: three trimmed roots ready to be forced in the dark.

  •      You don’t have to force all your chicory at once. Look for those with a taproot about 2cms or more across.
  •      Loosen the root and carefully lift from the soil. Trim the roots if they are very long.
  •      Cut off the leaves about 1-2cms above the root.
  •      Replant in a pot in damp compost. You can replant 3-4 roots in a 30cm pot.
  •      Cover the pot with a bucket or something that will exclude all light. It must be completely dark.
  •      Place the pot somewhere frost-free and relatively warm – ideally within 12-16 degrees Celsius. It’s good idea to put it somewhere dark like a cupboard just to ensure the roots aren’t exposed to light.
  •      Apart from checking the compost stays moist, leave alone for 3-4 weeks, when the chicons should have formed.
Chicons beginning to grow after a week in darkness.

Three weeks after the chicory plants were transplanted,
trimmed and repotted, we removed the black cover to find
chicons ready to be harvested.
For other accounts of forcing chicory and how to do it, see this post on, or here on My Tiny Plot. There is also an account of forcing red Rossa di Treviso chicory on Freshly Picked.