Curly endive, Belgian endive, or whatever variety of Cichorium strikes your fancy, this is one vegetable that should be part of every foodscape.
If you eat salads, soups, or burgers, curly endive is an excellent addition to your garden. It looks pretty, it tolerates both heat and cold, and, if allowed to go to seed, will decorate your yard with dozens of rosette-shaped edible plants! These cousins to dandelions and sunflowers have much to offer the home gardener. One cup of fresh endive contains 220% of the Daily Value for Vitamin K, 36% folic acid, 20% manganese, and plenty of other nutrients. Endives also add a distinct depth of flavor to many dishes.
There are several members of the endive family. They are all cool season greens, with high nutritional values and varying degrees of bitterness. Now, bitterness is a weird thing. I just read Evolution of bitter taste sensitivity, from ScienceDaily, and learned how the conflict between disliking bitterness protects us from eating toxins and prevents us from enjoying healthy foods is more complex than you might expect. Give it a read!
How to grow endive
Endive is a cool season biennial plant, like lettuce and spinach, that can be grown in sun, shade, or outdoor containers. (It would look nice on an apartment balcony, too!) In the Bay Area, endive can be started in late summer, fall, or winter. The plants are tolerant of light frost, which is about all we get. Plants prefer plenty of sunlight and a soil pH of 5 - 6.8, which is more acidic than we tend to have, but my plants don’t seem to care. Seeds should be planted 1/4 inch deep. Mature plants will need to be 8 to 12 inches apart, unless you are growing Belgian endive, which is another story altogether (below). If plants are too close together, they are more likely to bolt, or go to seed. Water regularly to keep the bitterness to a minimum. Dressing the plants with aged compost once or twice during the growing season adds nutrients needed for the best flavor and growth. (Dressing means putting aged compost around a plant.) When plants are 5 to 6 inches tall, they can be harvested by cutting them off at ground level. The remaining stump will grow another plant for a continuous harvest. Or, you can simply remove outer leaves, as you need them, which is what I do.
Belgian endive, left to its own devices, can be quite bitter. The Belgian endive you see in the grocery store has been blanched to reduce that bitterness. Now, I had always thought that blanching meant a form of cooking (which it does), but it also refers to blocking sunlight from plants. It ends up, the same chlorophyl that allows plants to make their food from sunlight also makes endives bitter. Blocking the sunlight, or blanching, for 2 or 3 weeks before harvesting gives the plants their delicate white color and removes much of the inherent bitterness. To blanch Belgian endive, wait until the plants are 4 or 5 inches tall and the leaves are dry (to avoid rotting), tie a string around each plant, and place a large flowerpot or bucket over each one. Commercially grown Belgian endive is planted very close together, creating a blanching environment, but it’s tricky.
Endive pests & diseases
I have found slugs and snails to be the biggest pests, but even they don’t do a whole lot of damage to my curly endive. Aphids and cutworms may also show up, but, again, the damage is minimal. Apparently, the bitterness that makes endive so healthy for us is also what makes it undesirable to pests. Curly endive has no serious diseases. Broad leafed varieties, however, have a tendency to collect water on the leaves, creating habitat for occasional fungal diseases.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!