How to Grow: Artichokes

Learn about the best varieties and how to grow artichokes to fruit in one season in the North

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Most people think of globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) as a specialty vegetable from California. When I used to visit the Central California coast each winter, I enjoyed wandering the artichoke fields and eating “chokes” right from farm. But now I can grow artichokes right here in the Northeast, too.

With new varieties adapted to our climate, globe artichokes no longer are a specialty item, but a regular vegetable at farmer’s markets and stands in summer. This thistle-family, perennial vegetable produces a large attractive gray-green foliaged plant with edible flower buds. You’re actually eating the flowers before they open. This Italian delicacy is usually steamed to be eaten. Pull off the leaf brachts (petals) and work your way down to the artichoke heart, dipping each part in butter. It’s a tasty adventure in eating. You can also eat the hearts cooked in salads or tossed in pasta dishes.

Globe artichoke

When to Plant

In California, artichokes are planted in fall, overwintered, and produce buds in spring. They need the cold period to induce bud formation. Since they’re not hardy in the Northeast without extensive winter protection, we have to plant them as annuals in spring for a late summer crop. The key is to select varieties adapted to our growing season. These will produce buds without having to be exposed to winter’s chill. Sow seeds indoors 6- to 8-weeks before your last frost date. Plant in late April to late May, after the threat of frost has passed.

Where to Plant

Plant artichokes in full sun on well-drained, fertile soil. The plant grows quickly to 4-feet tall, so needs lots of nutrients and water. Artichokes don’t like cold, wet soil, so if your garden has heavy clay soil, consider building and planting on a raised bed.

How to Plant

The key to getting artichokes to set buds without going through a winter is to expose the seedlings to temperatures between 32F and 50F for 10 days in spring. You can purchase seedlings from a greenhouse that has already had this cold treatment, or set them outside yourself in late spring.

Amend the soil with a 2-inch thick layer of compost prior to planting an set plants 2- to 3-feet apart in rows spaced 4 feet apart.

Care and Maintenance

Artichokes need constant soil moisture and good fertility to grow their best. Keep plants watered and well weeded. Once established, mulch with a 2- to 3-inch thick layer of straw mulch. Dry soils result in small and fewer flower buds. Fertilize monthly with a high nitrogen, organic fertilizer such as soybean meal or fish emulsion.

Artichokes don’t have many pest problems. Poor soil drainage will result in root rot. Keep the soil well drained to avoid this disease. Slugs and snails may attack young plants during periods of wet weather. Control these pests with traps and organic baits.

Harvesting

Spring planted artichokes begin setting flower buds in mid summer about 80 to 90 days after planting. Buds should be harvested when they’re still firm, but full size. The first bud is the largest. Cut the bud a few inches below the flower. Smaller side buds will continue to form and can be harvested until frost. A large, healthy plant can yield up to 20 buds.

Additional Information

‘Imperial Star’ and ‘Tavor’ were specifically bred for growing in the Northeast and cold areas. They produce 3- to 4-inch diameter buds. ‘Tempo’ is a new purple colored variety that can produce up to 20 buds in one season. Cardoon is an attractive artichoke relative that doesn’t form flower buds. It’s grown for its edible stems that are best blanched (block the sunlight from reaching the stems), cooked, and eaten.

Excerpted from Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening.

Podcast Transcript

I’m Charlie Nardozzi and this is the Vermont Garden Journal. When my daughter Elena was young we used to visit California, and sometimes for a treat, head up Route 1 to Castorville, and the Giant Artichoke restaurant. Castorville is the artichoke capital of the world and the restaurant features artichoke soups, omelets, burgers, cupcakes, and, our favorite, fries. But you don’t have to go to California to enjoy fresh artichokes. You can grow them in Vermont, too! Here’s how.artichoke

Globe artichokes are a perennial in warmer climates like California, Spain, and Italy and produce flower buds or “artichokes” starting the second year after planting. This thistle family plant can produce dozens of artichokes in the right climate. In Vermont if you get 10  to 12 good ones per plant you’re doing well.
Purchase plants from a local garden center. The best varieties for our climate are  ‘Imperial Star’ and ‘Tempo’. These newer varieties produce the flower buds in the first season provided you trick them. Expose artichokes to a few weeks of outdoor temperatures between freezing and 50F to fool them into thinking they’ve gone through a winter. They will send up flower buds by mid-summer.

Artichoke plants can grow 4 to 6 feet tall and wide so give them some space. Plant in full sun, on well drained, very fertile soil. Water regularly and feed them monthly with an organic fertilizer.  Set plants out soon, but protect them from a late frost. Harvest the chokes in mid-summer before the buds open and while they’re still firm. Be careful, the plants may have thorns. Saute, steam or fry them experimenting with a variety of dishes. Even consider leaving a few buds on the plant to open into an attractive purple thistle flower.

From the Vermont Garden Journal

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