May 28, 2000

The heirloom artichoke Violetto
(Photo by Debbie Teashon)

Our climate is well suited to growing artichokes. They're really about as easy to grow as their relative, Canada Thistle! Okay, I'm exaggerating a little bit; but if you like artichokes, you should try growing them.

Artichokes aren't widely grown in the maritime Pacific Northwest, in large part because older varieties were a bit more tricky to grow successfully. This is because artichokes are perennial in nature, and most don't flower until they've overwintered. Since the plants are only hardy to about 20 degrees F, and they don't particularly like wet feet in winter, artichokes need some coddling to help them survive the cold season.

Some newer varieties, though, will flower the first season - this eliminates the most difficult part of artichoke culture. Green Globe, which has been around for a number of years, is my overall favorite. It's very tasty, and yields large ‘chokes fairly early. Like most artichokes it has spines on its leaves, so you can get your fingers pricked if you're not careful! A new variety, Imperial Star, is thornless. It yields somewhat smaller ‘chokes a few weeks after Green Globe, and I don't think the flavor is quite as good – but you can get a nice successive harvest by growing both types.

To grow these artichokes as annuals, you need to get an early start. Around March 1 you should sow the seed in 4-inch pots – they are touchy about transplanting, so don't try to dig them out of a tray! I usually put three seeds in a pot, and thin it down to one plant as soon as they get true leaves. Artichokes produce off-types from seed more often than most other vegetables, but it's usually easy to identify these even as seedlings. Keep them in a cool spot with lots of light, and feed them like you would any other transplant.

They can be transplanted out when the danger of frost is past. Be sure not to wait, because they may not recover if they get rootbound in their pots. Artichokes are fairly heavy feeders, and develop into large plants, so I work 1-½ to 2 cups of complete organic fertilizer into each spot before I transplant them. The plants should be given at least two feet of space between plants, and it's better to allow three feet if you can spare the room. I like to give them a dose of blood meal about a month after they've been transplanted, but it's not strictly necessary.

You can expect to harvest the large, central choke sometime in August, depending on the weather. I wait until the scales are starting to separate a bit, but the exact timing is rather arbitrary depending on your tastes. Smaller chokes will come later, growing on stems out of the leaf axils – much like side shoots on broccoli.

Some people don't harvest the artichokes at all! They are striking plants, and are a good addition to your ornamental garden whether or not you choose to harvest them.

These “annual” artichokes can be overwintered just like the older traditional varieties, and will produce a good harvest in late spring. To overwinter any artichoke, you should cut them down to about a foot above ground in fall. Mulch well with a pile of leaves or straw – a good foot of mulch is not overdoing it! Many people then cover this pile with plastic. This keeps the roots drier and warmer, but it may also provide refuge for rodents; so there are tradeoffs. The following spring, once the danger of hard frost is past, uncover the plants and side-dress them with a good handful of blood meal. A month later side-dress again, this time with complete organic fertilizer.

Artichokes can keep producing for five or six years, if they survive the winters. Whether you try to keep them going year after year, or just grow the newer ones as if they were annuals, they are well worth it for the gardener who has the room. Give them a try! They are a luxury, but well worth it.

All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated November 18, 2013