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How To Grow Artichokes

how to grow artichokesIn this guide in my vegetable gardening series, I will teach you how to grow artichokes.

These plants produce one of the most delicious culinary delights of the garden: artichoke hearts!

Let’s jump right into it: Artichokes how to grow them?

For a long time, gardeners in the United States did not have the luxury of growing artichokes in their backyards outside of Southern California, because the vegetables could not grow well in other climates.

In the past decade, however, breeders have developed a strain of artichoke that can be grown as an annual almost anywhere in the United States, so now the vegetable is available to most gardeners.

In the first section of my guide on how to grow artichokes, I will discuss the rich history of the cultivation of artichokes, as well as the physiological aspects of the plant, and why these are important to understand when you are learning how to grow large artichokes and deciding what kind of artichoke you want to grow in your garden. Then I will explain the differences between the four major types of artichokes, including their size, yield, and flavor as well as where they can best be grown.

In the next section, I will begin by explaining how to correctly prepare the garden bed for growing artichokes. Site selection and soil preparation are very important considerations for how to grow artichokes that come back several years in a row, so I will be spending the majority of that section on this topic. Once you have managed to successfully establish plants that can overwinter, you will not be able to work the soil as thoroughly as you can before planting, so it is very important that the bed is thoroughly prepared before planting. I will explain adjusting the soil pH, double digging the bed for how to grow artichokes, and constructing raised beds. Then I will discuss how to start artichokes from seed and how to transplant seedlings so that they produce an edible harvest the first year.

Following that, I will discuss a few aspects of caring for your artichokes. Because artichokes are big plants that grow rapidly and feed heavily, it is important to make sure they are being adequately watered and are well fed. I will explain how to do this, as well as how to prevent aphids from attacking your artichokes and what to do if they do show up. Then I will talk about how to prepare your artichokes for overwintering and how to harvest your artichokes when they are mature.

By the end of this guide, you will be an expert on how to grow artichokes. Ready? Let’s get started.

1. All About Artichokes

all about artichokesIn this section of my guide on how to grow artichokes, I will first discuss the history of the plant from its ancestor the wild thistle to the cultivars that are recognizable as modern day artichokes. Then I will discuss some of the physiological characteristics of the plant, as well as those characteristics that are important to consider when you are learning how to grow artichokes. Finally I will describe four major varieties of artichokes, including their appearance and culinary aspects as well as where and how they may best be grown.

The globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is a vegetable that grows similarly to the wild thistle. Prehistoric people removed the capitula, or heads of thistles, to extract the edible and mildly flavored hearts. Although we still do not know when people domesticated the wild thistle, people continued to eat them all around the Mediterranean long after we learned how to grow artichokes.

Once people learned how to grow artichokes, they were eaten fresh and preserved to be used all year long by the ancient Romans, centuries before 0 A.D. The widespread use of the globe artichoke declined in importance as a culinary vegetable with the fall of the Roman Empire. However, during the reign of the powerful Medicis based in Venice, Italy, the globe artichoke was rediscovered and introduced to France as a gourmet item. In the sixteenth century, artichokes were thought of as fruits and side dishes, and the famous Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie became a master of how to grow artichokes in the vegetable gardens of King Louis XVI at Versailles, where he cultivated a wide variety of them. When French and Spanish colonists settled in the Americas, they brought the globe artichoke with them.

Artichokes rose to their greatest prominence in Western cuisine in the nineteenth century, when it was served as a delicacy in almost all of the royal courts of Europe, and was considered the highest culinary art form of the time. Meanwhile, it was also eaten by working people as well as those whose palates where less refined than those of the royalty: at this time, artichokes were finally eaten by nearly everyone in Europe.

The psychologist Sigmund Freud was notably enamored of the artichoke, and considered it his favorite plant. His wife often brought him some artichokes home from the market. He wrote that the artichokes reminded him of a happy childhood moment, when he and his sister had torn apart a book that their father had given them. How can I forget, wrote Freud, “the infinite joy with which we tore the pages from that book, page by page, as if it had been an artichoke?

Some readers may occasionally confuse artichokes with the similarly named Jerusalem artichoke (or sun choke), but that vegetable is neither from Jerusalem nor is it an artichoke. The Jerusalem artichoke is a vegetable that is native to North America and was originally eaten by indigenous peoples in what is now New England. It produces a knobby tuber with white flesh and a thin brown exterior. The tubers are nutty and sweet, and according to European explorers had a flavor that was not dissimilar to that of artichokes, although most people disagree with that assessment. Nevertheless the name stuck, even though this vegetable is nothing like artichokes.

1a. Characteristics of the Artichoke Plant

The artichoke is a perennial that grows to about five feet (1.5 meters) in height with a five to six foot (1.5 – 2 meter) spread. Because of this, it is necessary that you have a good amount of space in your garden intend to learn how to grow artichokes. The plant’s spread compared to the amount of edible yield it produces (each plant produces at most six to eight buds), along with the somewhat laborious nature of harvesting artichokes (as well as removing the edible artichoke hearts), is why artichokes tend to be among the more expensive vegetables at the supermarket.

It also means that the experience of learning how to grow artichokes will provide you with more horticultural satisfaction than a particularly high yield for your kitchen, and you should be prepared for this. If the buds are not harvested when they are mature, flower heads that are bluish in color and about six inches (14 cm) wide will appear. If you want to learn how to grow artichokes flowers, you can allow the heads to mature. The dark purple flowers are very beautiful.

The globe artichoke grows best in cool, mild climates. It is very sensitive to frost and in these areas it may be grown as an annual with a short harvest period in the fall. However, under warm or hot temperatures, yields are reduced and the bud scales become very tough. As the bud scales are the edible part of the plant, artichokes are primarily grown along certain sections of the California coast and in the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast regions.

If you live in an area where winter temperatures never drop below fourteen degrees Fahrenheit (-10 degrees Celsius, USDA hardiness zones 8 – 11), you can grow artichokes as perennial crops, the way nature intended. During their first year, the plants will produce leaves but not buds, which contain the edible artichoke hearts. Then, in the next near, they will produce buds in late summer and fall. In areas with warm, dry climates, such as in the Southwestern United States, buds will grow all year round, but are of the highest quality in the mid to late spring. If you live in colder regions (USDA hardiness zones 4 – 7), I recommend growing Imperial Star, which is a variety of artichoke that will produce edible buds in its first year and can be grown as an annual (see the Varieties section below for more on Imperial Star artichokes).

Rooted offshoots or divisions from mature plants are planted in the early fall. They are planted about three feet (1 m) apart in rows with five feet (1.5 m) between rows. Because they grow as a perennial, they should be planted at one edge of your vegetable garden in a sunny location. They will live and produce edible buds for five years or more.

After harvest, the plant is cut down at the soil line and removed. It is not watered for several weeks so that it becomes dormant during the warmest months of the summer. Fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, should be added after the dormancy period and then the plant should be irrigated. Rapid growth will then occur, and new stems which will produce new buds will then develop for fall production.

1b. Artichokes Varieties

There are a number of different artichoke varieties, each of which has certain characteristics in flavor, hardiness of the plant, and size of the buds produced. The choice of which to cultivate depends on the USDA hardiness zone you live in, whether you want to learn how to grow artichokes as annuals or perennials, and your culinary tastes.

However for those gardeners who are learning how to grow artichokes for the first time, I recommend focusing on one of three types in particular: Emerald, Green Globe and in particular Imperial artichokes. For more experienced gardeners who have some idea of how to grow artichokes and are looking for an exotic variety, I recommend an unusual cultivar called Violetto.

Emerald artichokes are a cousin of the more commonly known Green Globe varietals. Emeralds can range in size from large artichoke buds to smaller ones, and are bright green in color, with a relatively meaty flesh. Emeralds are favored by some growers because they do not have thorns and grow “open,” meaning the edible hearts are not tightly enclosed within a leaf crown, which makes harvesting them easier. If you want to learn how to grow artichokes and you live in regions on the Pacific coast, particularly Northern California, these artichokes are the best ones to grow.

Green Globe artichokes are the original “improved” cultivar. When people learned how to grow artichokes that were most like the ones we eat today, the Green Globe was the kind they grew. This variety flowers in late spring and produces buds that are dark green with a faint purple tint. The three to four heads each plant produces are generally on the larger end of the range for artichokes, and grow to between four to six inches (15 – 20 cm) in diameter at the base. The hearts of this artichoke are very thick and flavorful. One of the hardiest varieties, these will remain productive for five years or more. They can overwinter successfully in zone 7 and above.

Imperial star artichokes are best for gardeners in regions where they cannot overwinter their plants, or if they are only interested in learning how to grow artichokes as an annual. Before the development of Imperial star artichokes, gardeners were generally not able to grow artichokes in the United States outside of California. Imperial star varietals will produce six to eight buds, which are globe shaped, nearly devoid of spines, and are three to four inches (7 – 10 cm) in diameter at the widest part. The buds are a rich, deep, glossy green color. The flavor of Imperials is very similar to that of Green Globes. Above zone 7, this artichoke can be grown as a perennial. If you want to learn how to grow artichokes outside of California, this is the variety you should choose.

Violetto Artichokes were grown for the Italian aristocracy in Tuscany. Its name refers to the deep violet color that is brushed on the ends of the otherwise dark green buds. The buds are small, egg-shaped, somewhat elongated flower bud that will be about three to four inches (7 – 10 cm) wide by five or six inches (12 – 15 cm) long. This variety matures a bit later than Green Globes will, in about the early summer, and will continue to produce abundant harvests of absolutely delicious artichokes for four years or more. Violetto can be grown as a perennial above zone 7.

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2. Preparing and Planting Artichokes

preparing and planting artichokesIn this section of my guide on how to grow artichokes, I will describe several aspects that are important for ensuring you are able to successfully plant artichokes that not only mature to produce the highest possible yield, but also come back repeatedly for as many years as possible. High on the list of important considerations for how to grow artichokes successfully is soil preparation, so I will be spending a good deal of time on that subject. I will also discuss selecting the proper site for your artichoke bed; testing the soil pH and adjusting it for how to grow artichokes; double digging your bed to ensure the soil is properly prepared for how to grow artichokes; amending the soil with compost and nutrients; and constructing raised beds to optimize drainage and air circulation. After covering how to properly prepare the bed for how to grow artichokes, I will discuss planting.

2a. Site Selection

Because artichokes are a perennial plant that will hopefully continue producing in your vegetable garden for five years or more, the site you choose for your artichoke beds will be at least semi-permanent. Therefore you have to make sure it is in a location you are willing to dedicate solely to growing artichokes for a relatively long stretch of time. In addition to this, because artichokes require more room than many other plants in the garden, you will also have to dedicate a fairly large amount of space to them, especially if you intend to grow more than one artichoke plant.

I do recommend growing more than one plant, and this is for a number of reasons. Each plant will produce at best half a dozen artichoke buds, and each bud will produce only one artichoke heart. In addition to this, growing more than one of any vegetable plant is always a good idea if you have the room, because that way if you lose one plant to pests or disease, you may still be able to salvage the others in your crop.

So: pick a large site, regardless of whether you are growing artichokes as perennials or growing Imperial Stars as annuals, because they will need a lot of room. If you do live in a climate that will be suited for how to grow artichokes as perennials, make sure that it is one that you are comfortable dedicating to one crop for several years.

Finally, do not grow artichokes in a site where you have previously grown a lot of sunflowers, as there are certain diseases that can attack both plants, and may be dormant in the soil where sunflowers were grown in previous seasons.

2b. Preparing the Soil

Artichokes grow best in soil that has a pH of 6.5 to 8.0, which puts them fairly high on the alkaline side of the pH scale. In order to determine the pH of the soil, you can either use a home testing kit – these are available online or at garden supply centers – or you can take several samples from the garden bed and send them to your county’s local extension laboratory. The laboratory will test not only the pH of the soil but also the nutrient content, and give you a full report on both those factors as well as suggestions for how to amend the soil.

In order to raise the soil pH for how to grow artichokes, you will need to add plenty of lime. I recommend that you do this when you double dig the bed (see below), and further that you do it in the fall rather than in the spring. Adding lime to the artichoke bed will give it time to break down over the winter, which will mean more of it will be available the following spring. You can either add dolomitic lime, wood ash, or calcitic lime. The latter has the advantage of adding calcium to the soil along with lime, and so I recommend using it for how to grow artichokes. Artichokes that are grown in soils that are deficient in calcium run the risk of having reduced yields, or producing buds that are smaller than they otherwise would be.

Artichokes are large plants that consume nutrients voraciously and produce the highest yields when they can grow rapidly. Therefore the vegetable bed where you are planting artichokes will need to have well drained, fertile soil with plenty of organic matter in the form of compost or rotted manure. The best way to make sure your bed has this is to double dig the bed, amending it with plenty of well finished compost or manure while you are doing so, and by constructing a raised bed. These are especially important considerations if you are learning how to grow artichokes as perennials, because once they have become established in the garden bed, you will not have the opportunity to double dig the bed again for at least five years.

The disadvantage of double digging a bed is that it is labor intensive: it takes a lot of time and effort. The major advantage of double digging the bed is that it allows you to thoroughly loosen the subsoil and be sure that there is plenty of nutrient rich organic matter for your vegetables to draw food from. Loosening the soil has the advantage of dramatically improving drainage as well as air circulation, both of which are very important to growing healthy vegetables, and particularly healthy artichokes. I always recommend double digging your vegetable beds before you plant your crop, and this is especially important for how to grow artichokes. You can double dig your vegetable bed in the fall or spring before your plant, but it is generally a better practice to do it in the fall, as this will allow the organic matter to be more fully broken down, which will make the nutrients more readily available to your artichokes the following spring.

If you are preparing your bed for growing artichokes as a perennial crop, you will need to double dig the bed slightly differently than you otherwise would if you were just preparing it for an annual vegetable. You will only get one shot at double digging your bed for the next five years, so it is important that you do a thorough job.

First, dig a trench that is about a foot wide and eighteen to twenty four inches (45 to 60 cm) deep along one side of the garden bed. This is a bit deeper than I normally recommend digging for garden beds in which you would be growing annuals. Then, fill in the bed with a healthy mixture of well finished compost or manure to a depth of at least twelve inches (30 cm). This is a bit more than I normally recommend for annuals beds. Next, dig another trench along the side of the first one that is the same width and depth as the first. Fill in the first trench with the soil from the second, and use a garden fork or your spade to thoroughly till the organic matter into the new soil. Add organic matter to the second bed, also to a depth of at least twelve inches (30 cm). Repeat the process, working your way across the garden bed. Fill in the last trench with the soil you took out of the first trench, again working it thoroughly into the compost or manure you added to the trench.

As you can see, this is a lot of work. If you can, I highly recommend doing this job with a partner or even a team, as it will take a lot of time and can leave you with a sore back if you are doing it by yourself. If the soil in the garden bed is difficult to dig because it is very compact or rich in clay, I recommend using a roto-tiller to break it up and work loam into it before you begin the task of double digging.

The act of adding that much compost and/or manure to the garden bed while you are double digging it should already raise the bed a significant amount – at least ten to twelve inches (25 to 30 cm). Be sure that you avoid walking on the bed after you have double dug it, as doing so will compact the soil and ruin all of your hard work.

Beyond this, you may want to consider raising the bed even more than the process of double digging it has done. Constructing a raised bed that is up to eighteen inches (45 cm) above the level of the topsoil in the garden has the distinct advantage that it warms up in the spring significantly faster than it otherwise would. If you are growing annual artichokes in an area that has a relatively late last spring frost date, and also has relatively hot summers, being able to get your artichokes in the ground as soon as possible is very important.

You can build a raised bed with true walls made out of stones, cinder blocks, or (untreated) wood, or you can construct one simply by piling a mixture of soil and organic matter onto the top of the double dug garden bed. By mounding the soil, you have the added advantage of increasing the total surface area of the garden bed, which is an important consideration when you are growing large plants like artichokes that need a lot of room. Building a raised bed and complementing it with the addition of a cold frame is the best possible way to make sure the soil warms up as quickly as possible.

Constructing a cold frame for your raised bed is a relatively simple process, although it does help if you have built walls for your raised bed that can support the cold frame. All you have to do is make a frame out of wooden boards that are the same length and width dimensions of the raised bed, with a support beam running across the middle. Then, attach a heavy, clear plastic tarp to the top of the frame with small snails or a staple gun. The cold frame acts as a cap for your raised bed, and allows the sun’s rays to warm the soil while preventing heat from escaping.

If you do not want to construct a cold frame for your raised bed, you can also help keep the soil temperature higher than it otherwise would be through the winter, as well as help it to warm up faster in the spring, by mulching it one of two different ways. You can either cover it in a thick layer of straw over the winter, or mulch it with black plastic sheeting. Both methods will help to trap heat in the soil, although using black plastic sheeting will be more effective.

2c. Planting

Artichokes can be rather difficult to grow from seed, so if you can find a local plant nursery that sells seedlings, that is the best option. This is how I grow artichokes for culinary use. If you do want to grow your own plants, sow the seeds indoors in a starting mix in pots and keep them at a temperature of about 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius). The seedlings will begin to sprout in about 12 days. Transplant them to medium sized pots as soon as they develop their first true leaves, and reduce the ambient temperature to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit (18 C) during the day and 55 degrees F (12 C) at night.

You can trick your seedlings into reacting as if they have been grown through a winter using one of two different methods, which will cause them to produce edible buds the first season they are grown. One way is to refrigerate the seeds for two weeks before you sow them. An even more effective method is to put potted seedlings outdoors in a cold frame or other sheltered spot as soon as you can, while temperatures are still below 50 degrees F (10 C). Make sure to protect the seedlings or bring them back inside if frost threatens. Transplant them into the garden bed when all danger of frost is past.

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3. Maintaining Your Artichoke Bed

maintaining your artichoke bedBecause the most important consideration for how to grow artichokes successfully is the site selection and bed preparation, once you have gotten your seedlings in the ground and they are established, the rest is relatively easy. In this section I will discuss watering, feeding, and maintaining perennial plantings, as well as what to do if aphids, the major pest of artichokes, appear. I will also discuss winter care of perennially grown artichokes, and harvesting artichokes.

3a. Water

Artichoke plants wilt severely if they are moisture stressed, but the foliage will recover after a thorough watering. Water the plants deeply and evenly if dry spells occur during active growth periods. Avoid watering using overhead sprinklers, as this can damage leaves when water droplets are left on them during sunny days. I always recommend watering by hand, and artichokes are no exception, because it is important to make sure you are watering at the base of the plant, and it is a good practice to get up close and personal with your vegetables.

3b. Feeding

Artichokes are big plants with deep roots, and they are heavy feeders. There for they need a soil enriched with plenty of organic matter, as discussed in Section 3. You should feed both annual and perennial plants monthly during the active growth periods with a fish emulsion or a top dressing of compost or cottonseed meal. I personally prefer to use compost tea, which is made by adding two pounds (about 1 kilo) of well finished compost to 5 gallons (about 7.5 liters) of water, and allowing it to sit overnight. Water the artichoke patch with compost tea about twice a month.

3c. Aphids

Fortunately, artichokes do not have many natural enemies, and aphids, one of the only ones that can be a concern, are relatively easy to deal with. The best cure for aphids is prevention, and the best prevention is to fill your garden with predators such as ladybugs, green lacewings, and praying mantids. These voracious eaters love to feast on aphids. You can purchase ladybugs as well as green lacewing and mantid larvae online, and release them into your garden. I also recommend planting a number of flowers that help attract and retain these insects in your garden. These include marigolds, yarrow, nasturtiums, and Queen Anne’s lace.

If you do find aphids on your artichokes, simply wash them off with soap and water. This will not harm the plants and is a proven method for eradicating the aphids.

3d. Winter Care

In warm regions (USDA zone eight and above), cut the plants at or just below the ground level with a sharp knife, and cover them with a deep layer of organic mulch, followed by a layer of straw. In cool areas (USDA zones six and seven), cut the plants to about twelve inches (30 cm) above the ground and mound a light mulch, such as straw, over the stumps. Then, cover all of this with an inverted bushel basket or wooden box, much as you would overwinter non-hardy roses. Add more mulch over the basket or box. This kind of mulching can help the artichokes survive the winter in regions as cold as USDA zone 5.

3e. Harvest

In a normal production cycle, new bud production begins in the fall, and reaches a maximum in the spring when warmer temperatures occur. The terminal bud is always the largest one and may be up to five inches (11 cm) in size. Auxiliary buds will also develop and after the initial year, up to forty buds can be developed each growing season.

The buds should be harvested before the bud scales begin to spread. This spreading occurs as a result of the growth of the lower parts within the bud, and this reduces the size of the edible part of the plant. If the buds are harvested when they are small, yields can be reduced, but the buds will be more tender and edible. The bud is harvested by cutting the stem of the plants about two inches (4 cm) below the base of the bud. This small length of the stem is also tender and usually edible.

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4. Final Word

how to grow artichokesBy now you should feel pretty confident that you know everything there is to know about artichokes. In this guide, we covered the long tradition of growing artichokes, beginning with the ancestor of artichokes, the wild thistle, and through the rich history in European royal courts to the height of artichoke cultivation in the nineteenth century. Then, we learned about the physiology of the modern artichoke plant, and explored several different varieties. Of these, you should already know which one you want to grow in your garden. Then, we talked about how to correctly prepare the garden bed for growing perennial artichokes for five years or more, and how to grow artichokes from seed and how to transplant them so that they produce edible buds in their first year. Next, we discussed how to take care of your artichokes, including watering them, feeding them, keeping pests away, and ensuring that they survive the winter in various USDA zones. Finally, we learned how to harvest artichokes. Growing artichokes is a rewarding experience, and eating fresh artichoke hearts right out of your garden is one of the best culinary treats I can think of. Have fun and good luck now that you learned how to grow artichokes!

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