Chicory tips: Sowing salad crops will give you quick returns and huge satisfaction

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The Independent Online

You've pulled the first young radishes, nibbled on a few leaves of baby spinach and said goodbye to asparagus for this season (spears should not be cut after mid-June). But there are still five months of food-growing potential ahead. What can you sow or plant now to keep the crops coming in? Plants of winter greens such as Brussels sprouts, sprouting broccoli, various kinds of cabbage and curly kale should all go in this month, set quite deep and well stamped in.

Leeks, too, are easy to find now, bundled up as transplants. They grow easily, need little attention and can be turned into some of the best winter dishes around: leek tart, leek and potato soup, creamed leek spooned on top of turbot. Transplants are usually 23-30cm (9-12in) long and all you need to do is to make a row of holes with a dibber and drop a leek in each. The holes should be at least 15cm (6in) deep and 15cm (6in) apart. Fill each hole with water to wash soil over the roots. It really is that easy.

You might still find plants of sweetcorn around, too. Seeds of supersweet varieties such as 'Conqueror', 'Prelude' and 'Seville' do not germinate as easily as standard varieties like 'Sundance'. They are much more prone to rot in the ground. So there's a distinct advantage in buying plants, though they take a while to settle in. Set them out in a grid, leaving about 35cm (14in) both ways between each plant. Like leeks, they need little attention, though I've had to stake our plants the past two years to keep them upright in the extraordinary winds that now seem to be a feature of our summer weather.

You could sow another row of carrots, another pot of radish (very good dipped into hummus). You could add turnips and beetroot to the list – both will give good crops within three months. But if you've got a small garden and a limited amount of time to fiddle with veg, then what you should concentrate on is sowing salad crops. They give quick returns, huge satisfaction and even save you money.

Your first sowings of salad in April or May might have included peas (for the shoots), sorrel, looseleaf lettuce, spinach and rocket. Rocket does not like hot weather so is always best sown either early or late in the season. You should certainly start off a new sowing of cut-and-come-again salad leaves, but this month and next you might also think of adding endive and chicory to the salad list. Both of them do best if sown directly after the summer solstice (21 June).

These are designer vegetables par excellence, and you could fill a whole patch with decorative combinations of this one group, contrasting the smooth leaves of chicory with a shaggy endive, or playing with the marbled colours of the red chicories, often called radicchio. The names are muddling. In France, curly endive is called chicorée frisée and Belgian chicory, which looks like a small cream bomb, is called endive. Sugar loaf chicory, which is not blanched, grows like a cos lettuce. Endives can be blanched or not, depending on your taste, but you do not need to choose special blanching varieties, as you do with chicory. The French use chic little caps, like berets, which they put over the hearts of the endives to blanch them. An upturned plate does the same thing, though less stylishly.

In growing terms, the major difference between the two is that endive is an annual. Chicory is not and in its second year, produces tall sheaves of blue flowers, which are extremely attractive. Among endives you might choose between 'Fine Maraichere' (Chiltern Seeds £1.68) small, compact, frizzy and very decorative, though not hardy, 'Pancaliere' (Chiltern Seeds £2.06) makes masses of self-blanching growth, good for cut-and-come again, or 'Wallonne' (Suffolk Herbs £1.10), a traditional, hardy, French curled variety which makes a large, tightly packed head.

Good chicories include 'Pan di Zucchero' (Suffolk Herbs £1), quick growing and large headed, 'Bianca di Milano' (Seeds of Italy £1.49) for crisp, elongated heads which you can use small as a cut-and-come-again crop, and 'Grumolo Biondo Golden' (Chiltern Seeds £1.73), a gold-green, heirloom variety from the Piedmont region of Italy. For contrast, add red-leaved chicories/radicchios such as 'Palla Rossa' (Seeds of Italy sell seven different kinds of 'Palla Rossa' priced from £1.85 to £2.25, all of which produce neat wine-red leaves for late summer and winter salads), and 'Variegata di Castelfranco' (Chiltern Seeds £1.67), a wonderfully decorative old variety with green and red leaves surrounding an inner head of white and red. It's been grown in northern Italy since the 18th

century. Or you can take pot luck and sow the mixture created by Seeds of Italy – 12 different varieties in a 50g pack. That's about 30,000 seeds for £4.99.

To blanch or not to blanch, that is the question. Blanching alleviates the slight bitterness that is a characteristic of both these salad crops. Some types are so close-packed, they are effectively self-blanching. With others you can experiment, blanching hearts with an upturned plate or saucer. Both crops need fertile, well-drained soil, preferably in full sun, though summer crops of endive will tolerate light shade.

Sow seed this month, dribbling it as thinly as possible 1cm (in) deep, in rows 30cm (12in) apart. Seed can also be broadcast over a raised bed for cut-and-come-again crops. Gradually thin plants until they stand 25-30cm (10-12in) apart. If you are growing for cut-and-come-again crops, you don't need to thin at all, but do keep the plants well weeded and watered.

This is also the time to sow Belgian chicory for blanching. 'Witloof' (Suffolk Herbs £1) is the traditional finely-textured variety for forcing. The chicons can be forced outdoors or inside, but outside forcing is only feasible where the soil is not too heavy and cold. In early winter you need to cut any remaining leaves about 3cm (1in) above the neck of the plant. Cover the stumps with at least 15cm (6in) of soil and then fix cloches over the ridge.

To force chicons inside (which gives quicker results) lift the roots in November and discard any which are very thin. Trim the leaves back to about 23cm (9in) and pack the roots in a box of sand. Take out roots to force a few at a time. Trim off side shoots and shorten the main roots to about 15cm (6in). Pack the roots in moist soil. You can fit about six in a 23cm (9in) flower pot. Invert another pot over the first and store them in a suitable forcing place. In the warmth of an airing cupboard, chicons will develop in about three weeks. In a cooler cellar (though the temperature should not be below 10C/50F) forcing will take longer.

Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB, 01229 581137, chilternseeds.co.uk; Seeds of Italy, Unit C3 Phoenix Industrial Estate, Rosslyn Crescent, Harrow HA1 SP, 020-8427 5020, seedsofitaly.com; Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG, 01376 572456, suffolkherbs.com

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