April 4, 2017

How to Grow and Force Perfect Belgian Endive

Step-by-step guide on how-to raise and force your own Belgian Endive from seed in your home garden.

Since I have bit more time while being laid off for the summer and deciding what to do next with my life, I am beginning a series on raising garden plants from seed. For now, I will categorize these under "How to Grow...." although, these will be more like "How to Master" series. I hope that you will find these to be a little more useful than most posts that begin with "How to grow..."found elsewhere on the Internet not that there isn't an audience for "hacks" and "DIY" posts but most are over-simplified, and reduced down to "just sow the seeds!" - I want to offer posts that are a bit more useful than that.

Since I am a 'foodie' and not one to shy away for a challenge in the garden, I want to offer advice and guidelines on raising unusual vegetables (and flowers) - particularly ones which are either expensive in the market, or hard-to-find at nurseries and garden centers or even just crops which are often overlooked on other sites. This is how I came to growing Belgian Endive - I buy it often, as it is something I love to make winter salads with and cook with, braising it with bacon and chicken broth but more than anything else, at nearly $5.00 a pound, I know that it is expensive. 

A good sign that I probably write about raising Belgian Endive on this blog is that whenever I Google for HOW TO GROW BELGIAN ENDIVE, it's mostly my photos come up! - Sadly, often on other sites like this, or this site, or this one. They either get my photos from Flkr, or from an old eHow post I once did.  I am realizing that now that I have more time, I might as well begin posting more 'useful How To' posts as I can show both before and after shots, as well as actual "in the garden' images - something which is so  - well, it's what I do, right?

So why are more people not raising Belgian Endive? 
Well, OK, first, it's Belgian Endive, and even trying to get the cashier at the supermarket using the correct code can be a challenge, but if you are a foodie, you know why. Yet growing it oneself is a completely different matter.  The truth is, that to this day, I have met not a single person who has either raised their own Belgian Endive or forced it (aside from the great Roger Swain from the TV show 'The Victory Garden' who mentioned to me a couple of years ago that he wonders why folks are not raising their own old fashioned forcing vegetables, as well as admitting to me that he is an avid blog follower (nice, right?).

If you've never thought about raising Belgian endive, why not consider it this year? A few rows near the edge of the garden will require little care aside from digging up in the autumn to re-pot for forcing, and given that it is one of the costliest vegetables to buy, it's like growing a luxury item - and one which will be superior in quality to anything bought.

The answer may be a simple one - no one knows how.  Belgian Endive thus perfect for the first in this series, because more likely than not, you are not going to find chicons grown locally sold at your farmstand or  find local ones at your farmer market, and you definitely are not going to find seedlings at your local nursery (nor should you as it must be sown where it must grow). 

Belgian Endive may be expensive and its culture seems challenging, but I am going to show you how in many ways, it can be the easiest vegetable crop to grow. That's right, the easiest.

First, lets get the basics out of the way.

Seed - I used a name F1 hybrid called 'Totum' also available as organic seed, available from Johnny's Selected Seeds, as well as other sources. You can choose an un-named old variety too (usually its sold simply as Witloof Chocory).

Soil - Nothing fancy here, but if you research you may find some contradiction in on-line cultural advice in regards to soil. The goal here is to grow large thick roots (not branched ones or multiple root - you want to be able to harvest a carrot-shaped or parsnip shaped root), so rocks are to to avoided, as is a rich, nitrogen-rich soils or any fertilizer high in nitrogen. Commercial growers may add additional superphosphate, muriate of Potash and magnesium (as Epsom Salt) to avoid strong foliar growth) but I would suggest just sowing in place (remember, they are tap-rooted so no transplanting!).

Thin seedlings in-place  Thin your seedlings to 6 inches, do not transplant and you will need the roots to be straight. Aside from identifying what your seedlings look like, (hint - dandelions) let nature do the rest for the rest of the summer(Chicory is a common weed remember? You are not going to have a problem getting them to grow, I promise). 

On Forcing - In realize that the entire process here may seem complex (just think of it requiring 3 stages). Raising what will look like lettuce plants in the gardens, digging the roots in the autumn, and then forcing the roots indoors which just means bringing the potted roots into a warm, dark place.

With Belgian Endive, success is really all about how well one can raise thick roots. Poor soil, or soil which has low nitrogen or organic matter is helpful. A dry summer if often beneficial as well, to cause roots to drive deeper in search of water. Our soil is rich, but consistently moist which perhaps is ideal rather than dryness, then watering followed by drought again, with can cause splitting. Additional magnesium and low nitrogen was key here.

Materials - The most critical tool you will need is a good forcing container, and perhaps finding a dark space ( or blackout cloth). The best container will be smaller than you think, just wide enough to hold all the roots you are growing if tightly packed in.  Imagine taking a bag of carrots and setting them into a pot  - 5 lbs will fill something like a 10 inch clay pot. So no need for a big box or a large container. The bigger the container, the greater the risk of the roots decaying. Just a bit of soil surrounding the roots is all that is needed.

I use clay long toms for 3 or 4 8 foot rows will yield just enough roots to fill four 10 inch long toms. Your forcing container should be mostly roots set in shoulder to shoulder otherwise you risk decay if there needs to be too much growing medium.

Now, Relax - this is totally doable.  You can do it. Trust me. I grow and force Belgian Endive every year, and not only is is something most people can do, it is fun to watch them grow, and more fun to eat. They also happen to be beautiful when forced in pots, and nothing impresses guests more than a pot of forced endive in January - especially as a hostess gift!

Sow Belgian Endive seeds thinly, an inch or two apart in late spring to early summer in USDA Zone 5b.

1. Direct Sow Belgian Endive where they are to grow.  (and later than you might think).
 This was the first mistake I made - sowing Belgian Endive in the early spring, 'just as the soil can be worked' I was told. My crop grew fine, I should add, and by October a healthy crop of roots was harvested, but this year I am trying a crop from a later sowing, as it promises a better quality root.

Seed can be difficult to find, I grew Totum, an F1 hybrid available from Johnny's Selected Seed ad elsewhere, which is the premier selection at the moment. An older strain or selection which may be easier to source is 'Witloof di Bruxelles' 'Perlita'. Many seed catalogs simply market Belgian Endive under the name 'Witloof Chicory', ('Witloof' meaning 'White-leaf').

Avoid sowing seed too early, as in some areas, the roots can 'bolt' or go to seed if temperature and moisture shifts occur and tricks the plant (it's a biennial) into thinking that two growing seasons have passed). Commercial growers have the best success from crops sown in late June, although in New England, seed can be sown as early as late March if one is sure that cold weather won't return in May or June. Always a risk, but I personally prefer to take a chance on the longer growing season versus the risk of premature bolting. It's your choice.

Belgian Endive will grow all summer long, looking like their relative, the dandelion. Keep weeds clear and nitrogen levels low for the deepest and thickest roots.

2. Summer Care is easy. Remember, these are basically dandelions, so growth and vigor in any soil isn't usually a problem. Drought isn't necessarily a bad thing, as one wants long tap roots. If anything, rich soil can cause multiple and branched roots which is not idea. Throughout summer, keep weeded and perhaps mulched with straw or something porous, but I prefer open soil so that the plants can dry out between rain storms. Seedlings have been thinned to about 6 inches apart, but as you can see, a few other weeds and plants are closely planted. This didn't appear to affect my plant vigor, but I could have been more careful and prudent with my weeding to allow more sunshine to reach the plants. Ideally, the distance between rows should be 24 - 36 inches to allow massive foliar growth.

Belgian Endive roots, when properly grown are thick and solid not unlike carrots or parsnips. If some produce multiple roots, trim them down to a single, thick root. Discard those that have many small roots. One needs a thick crown (about an inch in diameter) to be able to produce nice chicons (sprouts). These were sown in mid April, but a later sowing is recommended for better root thickness, I will be sowing mine in June this year.

3. In late autumn carefully dig the roots

You may read on-line that Belgian Endive is grown hydroponically, but this is incorrect. Commercial growers field raise their stock, harvest the tap roots carefully (like carrots) and then ether store them dark and dry, or they set them into crates or special containers where they then are hydroponically forced.

At home, this is unnecessary. All one needs to do is to carefully dig roots just before a hard frost (around here, this is near Halloween but could be as late as mid November). Roots must be repotted unless one has a proper root cellar in which to store them until they are ready to force, but who has a root cellar? For the average home grower,  the roots only need a bit of pre-treatment to prepare them for forcing. The thin tips of the roots can be trimmed, but only to allow them to fit into the forcing container - one wants the tops to sit at the same height.
Well grow roots should be thick as small parsnips or bog carrots, with little to no branching.

The forcing container can be any deep container, a deep 5 gallon nursery pot, a bakery bucket, an orange Home Depot bucket, or a deep clay long-tom. If your roots are branched, trim them down to a single root (a double one is OK). Trim the foliage off of the top (a 'hair cut' to about an inch away from the crown), and then set the roots shoulder-to-shoulder tight together in your container. The medium can be sharp sand (something that drains well), vermiculite or potting soil - I use sterile Pro-Mix commercial potting soil.

The roots should extend about an inch above the surface, perhaps a bit more. Don't worry, they won't look very promising at this stage, but believe me, magic will happen soon. Water slightly, one only wants damp medium, as the roots won't require much water as you will need to keep them cold, and one will want to avoid decay.

Roots are trimmed a bit, and set side-by-side in a deep pot, and stored cold until ready to force.

4. Vernalize roots for one month in cold temps

I store my potted roots in the greenhouse under the bench where it is cold (near 45 degrees) but you may find that a cold, dark place in the garage or cellar will work better. If you cannot find a cold place, you should wash the roots off and keep them in the crisper drawer wrapped in newspaper until ready to force. A few weeks of cold will help vernalize them, which is necessary for proper chicon production. Chicons are what the French call the golden white buds we all know as Belgian Endive.

Some people store their unwashed roots in a cold shed or garage under burlap bags or in a wooden box with soil in it. Much like forcing Dutch bulbs, the roots need a bit of cold to believe that they have survived a winter and that it is time to grow again.

After two weeks in a warm, dark closet indoors, chicons one these Belgian Endive roots are ready to harvest. I cut them off carefully, and store them in the refrigerator (or use them in salads), and then force a second crop, again in complete darkness, which will produce a crop of looser leaves, but still useful in the kitchen.

5. Force potted roots in a warm, completely dark place.

After a month (or more) of cold exposure (just above freezing is ideal) the pots can be brought into the house to force - but here, it's easier than you might think. Unlike bulbs, Endive likes to be forced warm - but, in utter darkness, for even a crack pot light will make them turn green and bitter. It might be harder than you think to find a warm, dark place in your home. I struggled for a bit, but ended up finding that the upstairs cellarway was the warmest part, as in the winter, our cellar is still too cold. Other places that have worked are a closet, especially in an upstairs bedroom.

Darkness and warmth however an pose a problem - mold. I discovered this one year because I thought that a black plastic garbage bag might work perfectly, but even though it was held away from the sprouts with bamboo canes, I still had some mold. Mice to because a problem (yes, we have mice in the bedrooms - - 100 year old house, remember), but the cellar way for us, worked best.

Keep an eye out on the pots, as sprouts (Chicons) can emerge quickly, but here is the best part - the flavor and quality of home grown Belgian Endive made the little work involved so worth it. Imagine the crispiest iceberg lettuce you've ever had, with little fiber or bitterness. Sweet, crispy and really - so much fun to force that I will never be without 5 or 8 pots each winter.

A second crop will produce smaller leaves. but even the loose leaves of the third crop makes the entire process worth while. I can't over emphasize the quality and benefits here. Not the cost savings, although there is - (who worries about the cost of Belgian Endive!), this is all about the experience.

It's not too late to order seeds, or to plan where your might grow your crop. An edge of the garden is fine, as then plants literally require so little labor throughout the entire summer. Hoeing once or twice perhaps, and that's it. The only labor (again) is digging the roots and storing them - what's so hard about that?

1 comment :

  1. Thanks for posting such a good blog having very helpful information.


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