The Art of Growing Artichokes (and Eating Them Too)

article image
PHOTO: JUANITA BROWNE
After successfully growing artichokes, enjoy the fruits of your labor dipped in butter sauce.

Though many folks are unfamiliar with artichokes, these
plants are among the most beautiful and versatile additions
that you could make to your garden. Their decorative
gray-green leaves, stately pineapple-shaped heads, and
blue-purple, thistle-like flowers are pretty enough to adorn
a flower bed or to be mistaken for a piece of fancy
shrubbery … and there are endless ways to cook ’em!

Artichokes (Cynara scolymus) are usually considered a
vegetable, but they’re actually an herb of the Compositae
family, native to the Caribbean region. The plants were
introduced into the United States–in Louisiana and
California–by French settlers, Spanish explorers, and
Italian immigrants.

Those transplanted herbs found central California
particularly to their liking. As a
result, about 90% of all of America’s commercially
grown artichokes are found near Castroville, California, a town that really deserves its title of “Artichoke Capital
of the World.” The tasty plants thrive in this frost-free
region of cool, foggy summers and light, sandy soil.
However, artichokes can be cultivated in other climes, too! I
know, because I’ve had success growing artichokes in the dry, hot San
Fernando Valley as well as in the foothills of the Sierra
Nevada, where early and late frosts and some
heavy freezes are common.

So, if you have rich soil, can protect the plants against
freezing, and will mist the leaves to prevent dehydration,
chances are that you’ll produce a reasonable ‘choke crop
no matter where you live. If you do, the harvest
will more than make up for your efforts!

Where to Get ‘Em

Artichokes can be grown from seed, but this method is
“chancy” at best. Although seeds might produce a good
plant, they may also yield an herb that has reverted to its
thistle heritage; artichokes don’t always grow
true to variety.

You can avoid this problem entirely, however, if you
transplant sections of rootstock (commonly called
“stumps”), or use offshoots (sideshoots) taken from the
base of an old plant.
And–if you have a choice–rootstock will produce
better plants than offshoots will, since the stumps
provide stored nutrients that immediately force new leaf
and root growth. A root section of several inches in
diameter and six inches or more in length can–if it’s
planted after spring frosts are over–give you a small
crop of artichokes during the very first year.

The sucker offshoots, however–which should be dug in
the spring when they’re about 10 inches high–take
another year or two to produce. And, even if small buds do
appear on these plants the first year, they should be
pinched back to build up the artichoke’s strength for a
more productive second season.

If you can’t get rootstock cuttings from a friend or at
your local nursery, you can order them from Giant Artichoke, 11241 Merritt Street, Castroville,
California 95012. Prices range from
$1.25 to $2.50 per root, and you’ll want the variety with
tender, delicious green globes. (The purple globes have
beautiful flowers, but most people don’t consider them
worth eating.)

How to Plant ‘Em

Artichokes need a sunny location, but–in especially
hot, dry areas–the plants will do better if they
receive some shade during the hottest part of the day.

‘Chokes also prefer well drained, friable soil that’s
heavily enriched with compost and manure. Should you have
heavy dirt, it’s best to break up the subsoil and “lighten”
it with ashes, coarse sand, peat, or grit.

After you’ve prepared the soil, place your plants three to
four feet apart, with the stumps six to eight inches deep
and the base of the new leafy shoots just above the ground.

You’ll generally find that a half dozen plants will provide
enough artichokes for a small family. However, a whole row
along a fence would make a practical (and attractive)
addition to any garden.

How to Keep ‘Em Healthy

Be sure to keep weeds away from your new plants to prevent
competition for soil nutrients, and–since artichokes
like nitrogen–feed them several times a season with a
mulch of manure and rich compost. Also, you must water the
plants frequently and deeply, and mist the leaves any time
they show signs of wilting.

Once an artichoke is established, it’ll grow and produce
vigorously for four or five years. After that time,
however, the plant should be dug up and divided, and its
rootstock replanted.

How to Harvest ‘Em

Artichokes grow to a height of three feet or more and
spread to about six feet in diameter. In the spring, the
plant will begin to send up shoots from its permanent
crown. (A young artichoke may produce only one shoot, while
older plants might send up a dozen or more.) Each
individual shoot then forms a cluster of large rosette
leaves, a stalk grows from the center of the leaf cluster,
and several buds are formed on the elongated stalk.

These globular buds–which are really immature flower
heads–contain the parts of the plant that you eat.
When they reach anywhere from two to four inches in
diameter (and before the individual bud leaves start to
open), they should be harvested. To do this, cut the stem
at a point about one-and-a-half inches below the base of
the bud. (In the California fog belt, artichokes can be
picked from early winter through spring. In most regions,
however, the buds will not mature until late spring and
early summer.)

After all the buds have been harvested from a stem, it will
bend over and the leaves will show signs of dying back.
When this happens, cut the stem at its base and keep
removing these old bearing stalks throughout the year. New
shoots will grow from the base of the old stump, and these
will develop their own fruiting canes.

If your area suffers from cold winters, you should cut back
all of the foliage in late November and protect the plants’
crowns. I cover my artichokes with a deep pile of hay,
but–in hard-freeze areas–it may be necessary to
invert a box filled with mulch over the crown, and then
mound soil two feet deep around and over the box. Then,
when all danger of frost is past, just remove the box and
the mulch, and start “feeding” the plants with a good dose
of compost or manure.

Cooking Artichokes

The tender base of the bud leaves, the fleshy part of the
flower base (the heart), and the tender stem are the edible
parts of the artichoke. They can be served hot or cold, and
they’re delicious whether marinated, stuffed,
pickled, dipped, sautéed, puréed,
souffléed, dried, fried, or “souped.” (Check out
French and Italian cookbooks for dozens of ways to prepare
this versatile herb.)

I like to serve (and eat!) artichokes as a “finger food” dipped in a sauce made of 1 cup of melted butter and
1/4 cup of lemon juice. The succulent buds are delicious
when eaten this way, and are no trouble at all to prepare.

First, to get rid of any “creepy crawlies” (such as earwigs
or aphids), soak the artichokes in salted ice water for 30
minutes, then rinse them and remove their small, tough,
bottom leaves. If you want to be especially elegant, cut
off about one inch of the top leaves and trim the tips of
the remaining fronds with kitchen shears.

After that, simply place the buds on a steamer rack above
an inch or so of boiling water, then cover the pot and let
it steam gently for 30-45 minutes or until the base can be easily pierced with a fork.

Finally, when the artichokes are done, lift them out of the
pot with tongs and turn them upside down to drain. (You may
want to save the vitamin-rich water for soup stock, etc.)

Eating Artichokes

When you first sit down to a platter of steaming artichokes
and a tub of butter sauce, don’t let “good manners” blind
you to plain old common sense. This is one
food that just about has to be eaten with the fingers. Just
pick off the outer leaves one by one and dip
their lower, fleshy ends into the sauce. Then, pop the
buttery leaf-ends into your mouth, pull ’em between your
front teeth to strip off the delicious “meat,” and
nonchalantly toss aside the leathery upper portions.

When you’ve eaten most of the outer leaves, you’ll reach a
“fuzzy” central core. This is called the “choke,” and it’s
just above the most luscious morsel of all: the
“heart” of the artichoke. All you have to do is lift
out–with a sharp knife–and discard the furry
center, cut up the heart and stem that remain, dip the
pieces in your butter sauce, and enjoy a flavor that’ll
fulfill your most exotic gourmet desires!

And while you’re eating, you’ll be glad to know that
artichokes are high in vitamins and minerals and low in
calories (they average between 50 and 60 calories per
bud). In fact, these tasty plants are proof positive that
not everything enjoyable is–as the old saw
says–either illegal, immoral, or fattening!