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How to Grow: Endive
It looks like lettuce, but sure doesn’t taste like lettuce. Endive (Cichorium endivia) and, its cousin, escarole, are distinct tasting greens popular in Europe, but gaining in notoriety in our country. Endive has deeply cut, curly leaves, while escarole has broad, smooth-leaves. Both form loose heads with tender white leaves and stems in the center.
I grew up eating my mother’s escarole soup, so I love these slightly bitter greens, that stay slightly crunchy even after cooking. The greens can be used like lettuce in salads or cooked in soups and stews.
When to Plant
Like lettuce, endive is a cool season crop and grows best with temperatures in the 60Fs. Warm temperatures not only can make the greens bolt (form a flower stalk), but also taste more bitter. It’s best to plant endive 3 weeks before your last frost date — April and May. Grow a fall crop sowing seeds or transplants in late summer for an autumn harvest. To get a jump on the season you can also start seedlings indoors 3- to 4-weeks before your planting date.
Where to Plant
Endive grows best in full sun. It can tolerate only 2- to 3-hours of sun a day and still produce an edible plant, but the heads won’t be as well formed. It needs a well-drained, moist soil. If growing on heavy soils, consider planting on an 8-inch tall and 3-foot wide, raised bed.
How to Plant
Amend the soil with compost and sow seeds one inch apart in rows spaced 18 inches apart. Transplant seedlings to 7- to 8-inches apart in rows. I like to cover the small seeds with sand or potting soil to keep them consistently moist so they germinate well.
Care and Maintenance
Once the seeds germinate, thin. Use the thinnings in salads. Keep thinning until the heads are spaced 7 inches apart in the rows. Keep the beds well watered. If the bed dries out, the heads will become more bitter flavored. Hand weed and then mulch with a layer of straw or untreated grass clippings. Fertilize the young seedlings with fish emulsion after thinning and again 3 weeks later.
To create and even milder flavored head, you can help blanch (block the light) the heads by placing a pot over the heads 2 weeks before harvest.
Although not as attractive to pests as lettuce, endive still has its share of problems. Rabbits and woodchucks love the young greens, so fence to keep these critters out. Aphids will feed on the tender leaves. Spray insecticidal soap to ward them off. Slugs and snails will also munch on the leaves. Use beer traps to catch and kill them, copper flashing, sharp sand, or crushed sea or oyster shells to ward them off, and iron phosphate bait to lure and kill them. Space plants properly to avoid rot diseases.
Pick young leaves as baby greens when they’re at least 2-inches long. Pick young heads about 40- to 50-days after planting by harvesting the young outer leaves. Allow some heads to mature to full size in about 60 to 80 days and cut the whole head to the ground for cooking.
Some good endive varieties to try in your garden include ‘Frisee’, which has finely cut leaves that are naturally blanched at the base. ‘Rhodos’ has lobe-shaped, blue-green leaves and a looser head. ‘Batavian’ escarole is less bitter than most endives. It has dense-packed broad leaves with a tender center. This is the one my mom cooks into escarole soup.
Text excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.