How to grow artichokes
by Nan Sterman
An artichoke is a multi-purpose plant: its tender hearts and meaty leaflike bracts are a stunning addition to any meal; its jagged-edged gray-green leaves are beautiful in any garden, and its buds make stunning flowers.
Stalks emerge from the center of the artichoke in spring and soon form flower buds at the tips. Baby artichokes are buds harvested while small. Left on the stalk, buds grow to full size artichokes. In early summer, buds open to reveal fringes of rose-purple or lavender blue stamens.
As buds are cut, artichoke plants send out side shoots, which form buds as well. In other words, the more buds you harvest, the more you get. In the heat of summer, however, the artichoke's stems and leaves wither as the plants sink into summer dormancy. Once the air cools in fall, silvery green leaves sprout from the earth once again.
How to grow artichokes
- Sow artichoke seeds in August, then transplant once the seedlings are about 5 inches tall. Seed-started artichokes often produce two crops their first year.
- You can purchase dormant artichoke roots at the nursery in winter or artichoke seedlings just about any time of year. Space plants at least 5 feet apart — they easily grow 3 or 4 feet tall and 5 or 6 feet wide.
- Artichoke plants need full sun and well-draining soil. If yours is a container garden, plant artichokes into 15-gallon nursery containers or very large decorative plastic or ceramic pots.
- Artichoke plants are surprisingly drought tolerant, which is great for California gardens. That said, a bit of extra water in late spring would make for more buds. To harvest, simply cut a stalk at the nearest branching point. Young artichoke stems are often tender enough to be steamed and eaten along with the buds, especially early in the season.
- Like other Mediterranean climate plants, artichokes are accustomed to poor soils, so if you mulch with organic compost, you needn't fertilize. In fact, too much nitrogen fertilizer encourages foliage at the expense of buds. And that tender growth will attract even more of the ants that will inevitably show up with their partner aphids.
- Yes, ants and aphids are a byproduct of growing artichokes. When preparing artichokes, fill a basin with water, a dash of white vinegar and a squirt of dish soap. Swirl cut buds vigorously to dislodge aphids. They'll float to the surface.
- Since artichokes are perennials, they're a great addition to any perennial garden. Combine them with other Mediterranean climate plants such as rockrose, lavender, bay and rosemary. Where winter temperatures go below 10 degrees F, grow artichokes as annuals.
In California, our choices are limited to which types of artichokes we can grow. "Emerald" artichoke buds are large, globe-shaped, glossy green and thornless. "Improved Green Globe" has purple-tinged green buds and ferny foliage. "Imperial Star" has thornless leaves and glossy green buds. "Purple Romagna" has thorny, oblong, purple buds. "Violetto" is from Italy, and makes many, elongated, violet buds.
Nan Sterman is author of “California Gardener’s Guide Volume II.” She’s a gardening expert, communicator and designer who has long grown an organic garden of plants that both feed her family and beautify her yard.