The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for April, 2010

My sugarloaf chicory greges*

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

*(from Wikipedia) The term grex (pl. greges), derived from the Latin noun grex, gregis meaning flock…
When a hybrid cross is made, all of the seedlings grown from the resulting seed pod are considered to be in the same grex. Any additional plants produced from the hybridization of the same two parental greges also belong to the grex. All of the members of a specific grex may be loosely thought of as “sister plants”, and just like the brothers and sisters of any family, may share many traits in common or look quite different from one another. This is due to the randomization of genes passed on to progeny during sexual reproduction.

chicory in the lawn

The sugarloaf chicories are absolutely my favorite green. I tried saving seed for them quite some time ago, in the 80s, and didn’t have great success at first – chicory seed is not easy to harvest and process. They are mostly biennial, so I thought at first that I needed to choose my seed parents in the first year and over winter them in the root cellar. However, one May as I was walking across the lawn, my eyes beheld a sight very like the photo above. Somehow a sugarloaf seed had managed to escape into the lawn, germinate, grow and survive the winter. I can take a hint, so I dug it up, gave it a proper place in a garden bed, and decided to pretty much just let it do its chicory thing with a few other stray sugarloafs I found in the garden proper. We have no wild chicories in the neighborhood, so I didn’t have to worry about isolation (they’re insect pollinated). And, I gave up trying to figure out the optimum sowing time (too early, it bolts; too late, not big enough). Now they just sow themselves. I weed them, toss them some compost, yank out whatever doesn’t please me… and eat them all.

The original one plant was probably from Greenlof (Sugarhat) which I got from William Dam Seeds, so it’s likely of Dutch origin. I soon added more varieties of this type of chicory including Cornet d’Anjou, Snowflake, Sugarloaf/Pain de Sucre and most recently Blanc de Milan, in three different parts of the gardens.

A chicory patch just after the snow has gone

Just after the winter snow had gone (early April 2010), a patch of naturalized sugarloaf chicories, 15 years on. The plants in this area are descended from the original plant I found in the lawn. You can see the remains of the seed stalks fom last year.

Only plants that survive the winter in the garden become seed parents. I sometimes give them a leaf mulch for winter, but this is tricky. It does allow harvesting the greens right out of the garden well into December, but it also attracts voles who will pull whole plants down into their underground lairs and eat them roots, leaves and all. I hate voles.

Second year plant surrounded by seedlings

Second year plant surrounded by seedlings.

I make selections for seed parents mainly in the late fall and early spring, just by roguing out (removing) any plants that don’t have the characteristics I’m looking for. At these times of the year the plants express their more subtle differences the best – in the summer when they are seedlings and when the second year plants begin to bolt, they more closely resemble each other. At first, making the choices was pretty easy, because there were a lot of hairy, limp leafed plants and I knew I wanted hairless, crisp leaves. Now there are very few hairy chicories showing up, but, what is fascinating to me is that even after all these years of selecting, if anything, there seems to be MORE diversity in the population. Check out the photo below – I have never had any radicchios or red chicories bolt here, yet in the last couple of years, I have color showing up more and more.

Diversity in the chicory population

Spring 2010 – the diversity in this group blows me away!

Bolting chicory

I have been favoring curling leaves and wavy edges. The result has been more plants like the seed parent in the photo at left which bolted last summer. It reminds me of a many-armed flamenco dancer.

I have also been watching out for anything that shows perennial tendencies, and letting it propagate. Color pleases me, too. As I walk into the chicory areas, I often feel like a guest at a huge banquet table, presented with more enticing possibilities than I can possibly pursue…

And speaking of banquets, you will never find salad greens better than these:

early April salad greens

Early April salad greens, straight from the garden. From top left, clockwise: hesperis, lovage, peppermint buds, sugarloaf chicory, and parsley.