Growing Artichokes is a task that takes a bit of patience, but the harvest is well worth the wait. The delightful Globe artichoke is an Italian heirloom vegetable that is grown and harvested from home gardens to give a unique taste of summer. Farmer's markets and Italian street markets have fresh artichokes in the summer for a few short weeks, but this heirloom is one with a noticeable difference in taste when freshly harvested and cooked.
An interesting, almost architectural plant, the edible flower buds look like round green pine cones, and can grow to the size of a softball. In the garden, they have wide, branching leaves, up to four feet across, with long stalks that hold the flower pods. A gardener can leave the flower pods to open naturally and form a seed head. They are a beautiful bold plant. But the most delightful use of an artichoke is to harvest and eat the plant when the flower pod is still a tight green bud.
Sowing The Seeds
Artichoke seeds should be started eight to ten weeks before transplanting outdoors; seeds can be grown in 4 inch pots with commercial seed starting soil or peat. The artichoke can be grown in multiple climates--in areas of mild winters and cool, foggy summers, chokes can be grown as perennials. In a climate with only a few cold winter days, zone 8 and 9, artichokes can be overwintered with mulch. Perennial growth can give you a harvest for up to five years. In colder zones plant as annuals in the spring for summer harvest. In humid subtropical zones, 10 and 11, plant in autumn for winter harvest.
When seedlings are eight to ten inches tall, with a sturdy base stalk and two sets of true leaves, they can be transplanted outdoors. Heavy soil should be amended with organic material, compost and sand; artichokes need well drained soil, as standing water can kill them. Chokes are happiest in mildly acidic soil with lots of compost added. An organic material such as straw can mulch the new plants as they begin to grow.
They need at least four feet between seedlings, due to the spreading habit, and full to partial sun. If areas with hot summers, afternoon shade is preferable. They will grow, depending on the variety, from four to five feet tall.
During summer heat, the plants can be watered weekly and fed with compost tea or fish emulsion. Fertilizer depends on your choice as a gardener; several complete organic options are available. When the flower pods are developing, the plants feed heavily and need more water. While the roots and crown are very sensitive to standing water, the flavor of the flower buds also depends on adequate watering during bud development. So well draining soil with organic amendments and perhaps a bit of sand for clay soils is important.
Each plant will produce a number of stalks. Each stalk will grow a larger bud on top, with several smaller buds below. Harvest by slicing the bud off the stalk with a knife when it's still tightly closed, but at least three to four inches in diameter. If a bud matures more quickly and begins to open, just leave it on the plant for an unusual display of color and form. The flower buds can no longer be eaten once they open. Once all of the flower buds have been harvested from a stalk, usually two or three buds, cut the stalk back to the ground.
Depending on the climate, artichokes can be affected by slugs and some fungal diseases. Slug traps or hand picking is usually adequate, and leaves affected by fungus can be removed from the plants and discarded. If more than a few leaves are affected, neem oil is another option.
Artichoke root systems develop strength, and the second year usually produces a larger harvest. Many gardeners try to overwinter the plant. After all the flower buds have either been harvested or have bloomed, cut the stalks back to the ground. Overwinter with between four and six inches of mulch. For zones colder than six or seven, you can also cover with a thick layer of straw, or invert a straw basket over the plants. Protect the roots from standing water during the winter.
After the second year, roots can be divided and replanted for a larger harvest. Cucumbers grow well with artichokes, as they have similar soil and water needs, and the climbing habit of the cukes keeps them from competing with the artichokes for sun if they grow up a trellis or wall. Radishes also grow easily around the base of an artichoke.
In many small towns in Italy, the summer artichoke harvest is a time for celebration. The chokes are eaten fresh, as close to harvest as they can be picked and cooked. The traditional way of eating artichokes is steamed, with butter for dipping. Leaves are pulled off the flower bud from the outside in, and the inside of each leaf is dipped in butter. The soft luscious artichoke flesh is found on the inside of each leaf, and it's drawn out between the lips, the teeth scraping the buttery vegetable into the mouth. When the outer leaves are all eaten, the secret heart of the artichoke is cut and dipped in butter. During artichoke season, artichokes are cooked on pizza, in fresh summer pastas, and with calamari and other seafood, dressed simply with butter and lemon. It's a tradition to eat an artichoke on a round plate, and each diner decorates the rim of his plate with the eaten leaves.