Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
May, 2001
Regional Report

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It's beautiful and edible. What more can an artichoke offer?

All About Artichokes

Sometimes I wonder why we choose to stay in the Bay Area. The traffic is a nightmare, the lines at the market are always long, there is never any parking, and the cost of housing is outrageous. As I ponder this question looking out over San Francisco Bay and enjoying a fresh cooked artichoke, I remember that there's more to the California experience that SUVs and movie stars. It's the unique climate in which we can actually grow plants like artichokes in our own back yard that more than makes up for having to stand in line for herbal fish food.

Artichoke Basics

Native to the Mediterranean, artichokes (Cynara scolymus) love the cool nights and warm days along our coast. Aside from providing delicious, tender thistles (actually flower buds) for the table, the plants are gorgeous. They grow 5 feet across and almost as high and feature beautiful gray fuzzy foliage.

Artichokes are perennials and are usually planted in fall for a spring harvest. Right now is peak artichoke harvest time, and they're available in grocery stores for next to nothing. Paying $.59 for an artichoke as big as a baby's head is my idea of heaven.

Knowing Your Chokes

There are two basic types of artichokes: those with thorns and those without thorns. The globe artichoke is the one I grow, and it definitely has thorns. The thornless varieties have very small hearts (the best part of the artichoke to eat) but are more resistant to heat, so they are a better choice for inland areas. 'Green Globe' and 'Imperial Star' are two globe artichoke varieties that grow well in coastal areas.

Planting Artichokes

Artichokes are best planted from bare-root stock or from divisions. Whichever method you choose, plant in full sun in sandy, fast-draining soil. They require regular water for an ample harvest, but if you are growing the plants just for looks and don't want the flower buds to eat, skimp on watering.

Finding the Flowers

The artichoke buds are sometimes hard to find on the plant. Contrary to popular belief, they're not all held above the foliage like finials on a stake. Sometimes a little game of hide and seek is required. Harvest buds when they're still tightly closed to ensure the best flavor and most tender leaves. You also have the option of leaving the buds on the plant to open and then harvesting them for use in flower arrangements.

After-Harvest Care

Once the harvest is over, cut the plants back to 1 to 2 feet to try for a second harvest. New sprouts will form at the base of the plant and will mature by fall. At the end of the season, once the leaves begin to yellow, allow the plant to dry out. Cut back the foliage once it has dried and put down a layer of organic compost to enrich the soil for next year's crop.

Artichoke Pests

I remember growing artichokes as a child in Napa. They grew well, with few pests except snails, slugs, and especially earwigs. Battles with earwigs were constant, and occasionally we would lose, especially toward the end of the season. Earwigs tunnel into the tender flesh at the base of the artichoke bud, ruining the leaves. Soaking the harvested artichokes in salt water for an hour prior to cooking would dislodge most of the unwanted earwigs, but their tunneling took some of the pleasure out of eating this local delicacy.

Eventually, our earwig control solution was to set newspaper traps away from the plants. Earwigs like to hide in damp, dark places. Rolled newspaper soaked in water and set out in the evening worked best to trap the insidious insects. Each morning, we collected and disposed of the newspaper rolls. Without earwigs to munch on my artichokes, it's free pickings for me.

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